New London officials promise accounting for Sailfest expenses

New London — City officials said this week they promise to get a better accounting of the city’s costs for hosting Sailfest, the annual event that draws hundreds of thousands of people each year.

In response to an article in Sunday's edition of The Day, Mayor Michael Passero said he intends to ask Finance Director Don Gray to not only compile data from this year’s event but to devise an accounting system to track expenditures for the event in future years.

City Council Chairwoman Erica Richardson said she not only wants to know the city’s costs but is calling for a full accounting of the costs and revenues for the Downtown New London Association, the nonprofit group that operates Sailfest.

A recent Freedom of Information request by The Day for city costs and expenditures for the event revealed the city did not have a grasp of its own expenses, which appear to be mostly overtime costs for employees of the police, fire and public works departments over the three-day weekend festival.

The city finance department compiled a cost estimate of $202,745 but stated is was not what the city spent but rather estimates of what Sailfest would cost if it were put on as a private event.

The estimate did not include costs to outside agencies such as the state and local police departments that annually pitch in to provide security.

Passero said the costs for Sailfest essentially are absorbed into the city's overall budget.

“Our excuse about this being the way it’s always been done is not a great excuse,” Passero said. “It’s (the Passero administration’s) first year with Sailfest and we have to be able to get a figure on what it costs. People have been talking for years about an economic impact study. The first step is to get a handle on the actual costs.”

He said an accounting of costs would be helpful when it comes time to plan for the event in the future, especially during lean years, when overtime costs might need to be trimmed.

Richardson said she has asked for an appearance by Barbara Neff at an upcoming council meeting. Neff runs Sailfest as the executive director of the Downtown New London Association.

Richardson said there are no Sailfest-specific line items in the budget for the council to consider, so an overall accounting of the event would be helpful.

“This is not a city-run event. This is run by a private entity,” Richardson said. “Why are taxpayers shouldering the costs for a private entity? We’ve been doing this for years, and the city is not really seeing anything in the way of revenue. How many other private entities do you know that could shut down the entire city without a full accounting?”

Richardson said Sailfest is “a lovely event for a lot of people,” but there are winners and losers when it comes to local businesses. She said she would like to see an economic impact study that shows how businesses benefit.

The Downtown New London Association in 2014, the most recent tax filings available, list revenues at Sailfest as $150,324 and total expenditures for food, entertainment and “other direct expenses” for the event at $100,000.

The organization lists its total fund balance at the end of the year at $6,435.

Passero said he expects a $25,000 compensation check from the Downtown New London Association this year to help offset some city expenses.

Neff — who is the organization’s only paid employee, with a salary of $20,000 — said when everything is taken into account, the Downtown New London Association basically breaks even.

“Basically what Sailfest does is help us run the rest of the year. We break even. We do not make money,” Neff said.

In addition to Sailfest, the Downtown New London Association runs the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade and this year ran the soup kitchen’s Festival of Trees, allowing the organization to donate $10,000 to the soup kitchen.

Neff said she hoped the public would see the benefit of Sailfest, an event that draws attention to the city and its offerings. She said she planned to open the association's accounting books to the council at a meeting in early October.

“There’s nothing better than standing at the bottom of State Street and seeing tons of people coming down, smiling, having a good time. That’s what this event is all about,” Neff said.

g.smith@theday.com

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