No excuse for not keeping track of Sailfest

How New London can host one of the state's biggest festival weekends and not know what it costs to do so sparks less of a shock than a nagging sense of disappointment.

The reason seems to be the old "we've always done it that way." Well, always is too long.

Sailfest, its chief producer, Barbara Neff, and the scores of volunteers who have staged the waterfront spectacle over the years are not the problem.

The problem is that a cash-strapped municipal government would continually commit more than a hundred thousand dollars to anything at all without an accounting.

They wouldn't buy a fire truck that way.

The deeper irony is that by not having a regular report each year, under the state's Freedom of Information law the city does not have to make public the revenues, or shortfalls, if any. How convenient.

This has to change. Under the second mayoral administration since charter revision altered the form of government, Sailfest is another city enterprise that has to be brought up to modern standards. What worked for a civic-minded group of volunteers 40 years ago has grown far too encompassing to be compared to, say, the one-hour Irish Parade or a road race.

Sailfest is not unique in its amalgamation of private and public enterprise. Many towns in the region host such multi-day events as the Hamburg Fair (Lyme), the Ledyard Fair or the North Stonington Agricultural Fair. For years Waterford hosted Waterford Week, Old Lyme has its Midsummer event and East Lyme has "Celebrate East Lyme."

Sailfest, with its signature fireworks display, is a much bigger undertaking than most in terms of crowds and undoubtedly one of the largest in number of vendors, rides and performances. The principle of transparency is the same, however.

For example, the Ledyard Fair, held just this past weekend, is put on by a private association with in-kind help from the public works department during normal working hours, meaning no overtime.

Volunteers empty trash and clean up during the weekend without paid help. The Ledyard Fair Association gets a bill within a few weeks for the hours spent by police officers covering the fair. The volunteer ambulance and fire departments make their town-owned equipment available — which it would be anyway.

The city and town of Groton host fireworks crowds of many thousands on the eastern bank of the Thames River. The city coordinates police coverage through mutual aid arrangements. It budgets specifically for police overtime for special events including fireworks night.

The town budgets funds through its police and parks and recreation departments and a small amount of overtime for trash removal by public works.

Whether a privately organized community fair makes or loses money is something the host town would want to know, at least out of neighborliness, but it is not the municipality's fiscal responsibility.

The obligation of the town or city to its taxpayers is rather to track how it expends public funds and whether the money is well spent. Ledyard and both Groton governments seem to know. New London did not, when asked, although the finance department helpfully estimated what expenses could have been.

Sailfest might not make more than it costs some years, and the City Council could say, never mind, it's good publicity and a good time for thousands of people, including residents. But that is not a decision the council ever makes because it gets no such report and has no such discussion.

In a series of budget years when important services, particularly police, got cut and mostly stayed cut, no one seems to have suggested that Sailfest pay a specified portion of costs for police overtime.

Four decades back, the need for police protection was to control mischief and disorderly conduct, sometimes including more serious crimes. But for the last 10 years, in the age of terrorism, the city has prepared for Sailfest with far more serious concerns for crowd safety. 

Thankfully, nothing of the kind has happened. But prudence means preparation and paid police and firefighter presence, to say nothing of public works overtime. The city needs to know what Sailfest cost and what it made, starting with the 2016 festival, and include the festival in its revenue and expense discussions for 2017. It should do the same for other large events.

Anything less is outmoded.

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.

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