Event organizers demand answers

Council postpones second hearing over fees


The City Council may have tabled a second public hearing at last week’s meeting to discuss the possibility of increasing the cost of special-event permits as a response to the city’s financial woes, but that didn’t stop event organizers from having their say in the good and welfare portion of the meeting.

To help fill its budget gap, the city is considering raising permit fees from $120 to $250 for events such as Irish Day and the annual Long Beach Polar Bears Super Bowl Splash, and requiring organizers to cover the city’s expenses, such as police and sanitation overtime, in advance.

At a public hearing in June, Pete Meyers — who has organized the Polar Bears Splash with Kevin McCarthy since 1998, an event that has raised more than $6 million for the Make-A-Wish Foundation — said they might not be able to afford to cover the event’s expenses. Carol O’Neill, president of the Michelle O’Neill Foundation, who organizes the annual Michelle O’Neill Volleyball Tournament, which raises money for children with cancer and special needs, and others have echoed those sentiments.

The city was set to hold a second hearing on Aug. 21, but the council voted unanimously to table it, and it has yet to be rescheduled.

Members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians Division 17, which organizes Irish Day, and other special-event participants turned out in force last week, and criticized the city for postponing the hearing. Though a number of organizations have already applied for or obtained event permits this year, organizers said that with several large events coming up over the next month or so — the volleyball tournament is on Sept. 8, and Irish Day on Oct. 6 — the discussion of fees and expenses has cast a pall over their preparations.

City Council President Anthony Eramo said that trustees were not yet prepared to discuss the issue publicly, needing to review it further among themselves.

Greg Schmalenberger, the AOH’s vice president, and others criticized the council for being unprepared. “We can’t just wait a month or a week,” Schmalenberger said. “It takes about six months to get things organized and prepared to run. We all want answers.”

The city said it spends about $400,000 per year in employee overtime to host special events. Irish Day alone, officials said, costs the city $100,000 in police, sanitation and other expenses.

If approved by the City Council, the permit-and-expenses measure would require event organizers to pay the city’s anticipated costs before the events. City officials would calculate the expected cost, Corporation Counsel Rob Agostisi explained at the June hearing, and would refund organizers if they were charged too much or issue them an invoice if they were charged too little.

The Super Bowl Sunday swim and Irish Day attract tens of thousands of out-of-towners who patronize local businesses during the quiet, cold months when business is otherwise slow. Event organizers have called on the city to conduct an economic study to analyze the revenue generated around town during large events.

Caryl Ann Niven, Carol O’Neill’s daughter, said last week that funds raised at the volleyball tournament go directly to families whose children have been diagnosed with “catastrophic illnesses,” as well as organizations such as Make-A-Wish and the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

The event, Niven said, requires a bandstand, two sets of bleachers, some barricades, and various sanitation and beach maintenance services. The foundation hires security guards and an EMT. “All other help that we receive is on a volunteer basis, designed to keep our overhead at a minimum,” she said. “History will show that our event has been running in a positive and trouble-free manner for 21 years. We understand that there’s a budget deficit that needs to be filled. But my hope is that when voting on how much the foundation is responsible for, it will be fair and budgeted for ahead of time, because it will impact what we are able to distribute to the families that need our help.”

Members of the AOH have said that they pay the city between $15,000 and $20,000 each year when they host Irish Day. The remaining money earned at the event — usually between $5,000 and $10,000 — is donated to charity, including local scholarships. Organizers have said that a requirement to reimburse the city would threaten the future of the event.

Bill Holtmeyer, the AOH’s financial secretary, said last week that with Irish Day six weeks away, the uncertainty over the fees is impacting business. He blamed the city’s financial problems on “fiscal mismanagement.”

“We have vendors,” he said. “This is affecting business. The vendors, the restaurants, they have to hire entertainment. You can’t do this two or three weeks before. I don’t think this should have ever been brought up in the first place.”

Holtmeyer added that in 2011, the AOH shortened the parade route and ended the festival earlier in an effort to help reduce overtime. “We worked with the city,” he said. “We had to adapt.”

Karen Adamo, president of the Long Beach Historical Society, which held its annual arts and crafts fair on the boardwalk last weekend, said that the organization relies on the event to help pay the $1,500 monthly mortgage and other costs associated with maintaining its museum, at 226 West Penn St.

“It costs us $35,000 to $40,000 per year,” Adamo said. “We kill ourselves for this festival, but it’s our major fundraiser to run the Historical Society.”

Adamo asked what expenses the city was considering increasing, and what it would cost organizers. “I think that’s part of the concern for a lot of the organizations: You can’t raise your price if you don’t know what your costs are going to be,” she said.

“I don’t think there’s anybody on this council who questions each of the organizations that are here,” council Vice President Chumi Diamond said. “As Councilman Eramo said, the character of Long Beach is about these great events that take place every single year. It’s a serious item, and we understand that it impacts the city as well as the organizations, and we want to make sure we have everything in place before we do it.”