New London Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio thought he was helping out the organizers of the annual Martin Luther King Jr. march when he offered to pay the permit fee to cover municipal costs associated with the event.
The city estimated $800 to $1,000 in city services for the Jan. 21 march. When he learned no one had applied for a parade permit for the organized walk through city streets, Finizio got the permit and said he drained his savings account to cover the cost. The event, the mayor said, was so important to the community that he was willing to cover the expense with his own money this year so it could continue. Finizio said he hoped the organizers would raise the money themselves for next year's march.
But not everyone saw the gesture as magnanimous.
Rev. Benjamin K. Watts, pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church which has hosted the event for 27 years, while grateful Finizio paid the fee, also was insulted that the city would even think of charging for the 10-minute walk from City Hall to his church on Garvin Street.
Police officers escorted the marchers and two police officers were stationed at the church during the nearly two-hour service.
Marchers, who carried signs that said "This is not a parade," were offended that a procession, to honor a man who defiantly marched and lost his life fighting for racial equality, would be called a parade.
The Southeastern Connecticut Ministerial Alliance, which sponsors the city's King march every year, has never applied for a permit or paid a fee for the event. Watts said the organizers would never pay a fee.
"This is not a parade,'' Watts said during the service. "This is not a St. Patrick's Day parade. This is not a Latin American pride parade. This is a commemoration. We remember our dead and our losses. ... Who would celebrate death?''
In Norwich, where a similar march covers a few city blocks and takes about 10 minutes, police did not charge for their services. There was a police car at the City Hall gathering spot and a police motorcycle escorted marchers.
Norwich police said they do not charge for any nonprofit event that is short enough and can be covered by officers already on patrol. This includes the MLK march, the annual Memorial Day parade, which is a quarter-mile procession from St. Patrick's Cathedral to the memorial monuments at Chelsea Parade, and the Good Friday Stations of the Cross around Chelsea Parade.
But in New London, Finizio got caught up in a controversy that he created in an attempt to reign in municipal spending and control finances.
Last May, as the city faced a projected $4 million budget shortfall, the mayor issued a series of cost-saving measures in the form of an executive order. Part of that order included requiring groups to apply for permits for a "special event, parade, or any other activity." The permit would include an estimate of what it cost the city in municipal services and the event organizer would be required to pay those costs in advance.
Sailfest, the annual three-day summer festival that closes down streets and brings thousands into the city, has always paid for city services. In 2011, it paid the city about $27,000. Last summer, OpSail2012, which was held simultaneously with Sailfest, was not required to pay a fee because the city had allowed the event prior to the time the executive order was issued.
And events sponsored by the city at Waterfront Park also are exempt from paying fees. Those gatherings, a chili cook-off, a grinder day and a Latin festival, are contained to the park and do not spill onto city streets.
The new policy did create problems for the New London Irish Parade Inc. committee, headed by City Councilor Marie Friess-McSparran. The nonprofit said it could not afford the estimated $15,000 to $20,000 permit fee for its annual parade, which closes off parts of Bank Street and all of State Street for about an hour. Unable to reach an agreement on costs, which were re-estimated to be about $7,000, the committee announced last October it would not be holding its parade in New London and was looking for an alternate site. No new plans have yet to be announced.
Another group almost immediately formed, headed by Sean Patrick Murray, and it has worked out an agreement with the city. The St. Patrick's Day Parade Committee agreed to pay about $7,000 for municipal costs. The parade is scheduled for March 17.
In an effort to sort out the benefits of having such events in the city and the overall cost to taxpayers, Finizio announced Jan. 21 during the MLK memorial that he was going to include in his budget for next year, a line item in which the City Council could use to pay for city services if it deemed a group should not have to pay.
"We should be able to march without charge and without fees,'' Finizio said.