Special treatment for Famously Hot New Year’s Eve?

Posted by Warren Bolton on April 1, 2014 

C MICHAEL BERGEN — mbergen@thestate.com Buy Photo

If you’re looking for more evidence that the organizers of Columbia’s Famously Hot New Year’s Eve party — now three years old — need to get their act together, consider the process through which the celebration got a $50,000 contribution from Richland County.

First of all, County Council didn’t give final approval of the funding until January. That’s right: Well after the party was over. But that’s because the request for funding came so late.

But better late than never. If it had been left up to Richland County staff — from folks in finance to representatives in the administrator’s office — the city’s Famously Hot New Year’s Eve bash wouldn’t have gotten a dime.

And it had nothing to do with the quality of the festival. It’s had laudable success: It has drawn a large, diverse crowd downtown, brought national attention to our capital city and given an economic boost to local restaurants, retailers and hotels.

The problem was that festival organizers never made a formal request for funding as groups seeking hospitality tax dollars must do.

Sam Johnson, special assistant to Mayor Steve Benjamin and an organizer of the New Year’s Eve celebration, wrote a letter dated Oct. 14, 2013, to then-County Council Chairman Kelvin Washington asking for $75,000 in support of the event.

When Mr. Washington made the request on Oct. 15, it was sent to the council’s Administration and Finance Committee, which sent the matter to the full council with no recommendation.

But while the committee had no recommendation, the staff sure did:

According to information in council agenda packets, the finance department recommended the request be denied, because it was being made out of the funding cycle. “Additionally would recommend that the agency be referred to the FY15 budget process for future request to be considered through the normal process.”

The county’s grants department likewise recommended denial, noting that “This organization received ‘out of cycle’ FY13 funding through the Hospitality Tax Grant. They were encouraged to apply for FY14 funds, but did not submit an application.”

A recommendation from administrative staff echoed that sentiment: “The event received out-of-cycle funding last fiscal year (FY 13), and event organizers were encouraged to apply for FY 14 funds in the normal grants process. An FY 14 application was not submitted via the normal grants process. Staff will continue to remind these event organizers, as well as other organizations, to submit funding requests in the normal grants process so that the requests may be evaluated and scored competitively along with all other funding requests.”

So for two years, the Famously Hot New Year’s eve celebration got county hospitality tax money without going through the normal process despite being told to do so. Why is it not following protocol? Is it because the group doesn’t have its stuff together or because organizers think it rates special treatment?

It’s sure gotten special treatment from Columbia City Council: The elected body has had to cover deficits for the party two out of the its three years of existence. This year, the council forked over an additional $50,000 in hospitality tax money, bringing the city’s total contribution to $140,000. Had Richland County Council not contributed $50,000 in January, the hole would have been deeper.

The Famously Hot New Year’s Even party is a good thing. But to keep this good thing going organizers must do a better job of budgeting, planning and, by all means, making requests for aid, from Richland County in this case, in the required manner.

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