Columbia’s New Year’s Eve party gets coveted funding status

07/28/2014 7:46 PM

07/28/2014 7:47 PM

Columbia’s perennially over-budget Famously Hot New Year’s Eve party will get $130,000 yearly from City Council and will not have to compete for the money as it has its first three years.

That’s because council earlier this month granted the event a coveted status that bypasses having to answer a citizens committee’s detailed questions and its demand that event organizers publicly produce financial and other data.

Organizers of the popular party have received “line item” status, which entails council itself voting to allocate the public money directly.

“I think we all would like to be a line item,” said Lee Lumpkin, chairman of the board of Columbia Classical Ballet, which competes yearly for the money. She also is on the committee that screens applications from some 100 organizations that depend heavily on the money.

There is nothing in the city’s practices to bar a line-item recipient from applying for more money from the committee.

For each of the three years the popular city-sponsored bash has been held, council has added money to offset deficits.

Until this year, party organizers had to apply to the screening committee. The committee rarely grants as much money as applicants request. Then, the panel recommends expenditures to council for final approval.

Mayor Steve Benjamin floated the idea of a public event to welcome the new year during the first year of his first administration.

This year’s upcoming event also is unusual, in that it received $40,000 in so-called “A-tax” money. Accommodations taxes are collected for occupied rooms in hotels and motels.

New Year’s Eve party organizers are among a rare few to receive both meal-tax and room-tax money.

That party has a preliminary budget of $430,200 with the goal of attracting 27,000 people to its music, alcohol and fireworks display, according to organizers.

The Dec. 31, 2013, party cost $473,079 to put on and got an initial $45,000 in meal-tax money from the city, according to city records and Benjamin aide Sam Johnson. Then, council twice authorized a total of $55,000 more – the last infusion occurring about a month after the event to cover a shortfall in corporate sponsorships and too few people buying VIP tickets, organizers said at the time.

The final shortfall was $6,868, Johnson, one of the co-chairmen of the event, said Monday.

The party attracted 26,000 people downtown, according to an application for money for this December’s event.

This year, the event is being overseen by the Greater Columbia Community Relations Council. It’s the third umbrella organization to serve in that role.

Community Relations director Henri Baskins said her group will watchdog spending for the party to be sure checks are written only for expenses that meet state law limitations on spending of meal or room taxes.

“It’s going to a restricted fund,” Baskins said Monday. If any invoices don’t meet that standard, “I will tell (party organizers), ‘I can’t write a check for this. You’ll have to raise this money privately.’ I’m going to be protective of CRC’s (Community Relations Council’s) name.”

She said her organization, created to help with race relations, lost its line-item status several years ago. “You just hold your breath hoping you’re going to get some money.”

The December 2012 party ran a deficit of $56,868. The first event, Dec. 31, 2011, eventually had a $367 profit. But that came after council approved $22,500 largely to offset extra security expenses because the anticipated crowd of 5,000 turned into 20,000.

An economic impact study done by the Midlands Authority for Conventions, Sports and Tourism indicated that bash generated $1.5 million for the local economy.

Committee chairman John Whitehead said he suggested to Benjamin in February that the city make the New Year’s party a budgetary line item so that more money would be available for the remainder of organizations applying for the meal-tax revenue.

“Stop playing shell games with (the funding) and treat it as a community outreach. Don’t make that part of what we have to deal with,” Whitehead said Monday of his reasoning for the change in status. “Finally, (council members) are up-front about it.”

Whitehead’s request coincided with the city again bailing the event out of the red – this time by granting the final $50,000.

Altogether, the city gave event organizers $100,000 for the Dec. 31, 2013, party. Richland County also contributed meal-tax money to the party.

Benjamin made the motion to grant the event line-item status.

Council approved on a 4-1 vote, with Councilman Moe Baddourah casting the only dissenting vote. Councilwoman Leona Plaugh and Councilman Brian DeQuincey Newman did not attend the July 15 meeting.

This fiscal year, the city’s 2 percent tax collected at restaurants, bars and other places that sell prepared meals or beverages is projected to generate $10 million. That’s the largest sum since Columbia established the tax in 2003.

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