Funds Earmarked in Secret Meeting

BLYTHEWOOD – At the Monday night Town Council meeting it was revealed that the Town’s Accommodation Tax Committee met via phone sometime in July, without public notice and without notifying the media, to vote to recommend funding for two Bravo Blythewood events: a Butterfly Festival ($7,500) and the Beach Bash ($5,000).

Councilman Bob Mangone expressed concern to Council that telephone meetings are sometimes the only way the Committee can get a quorum. He also expressed his dismay that the town’s hotel owners, which make up three of the seven seats on the Committee, rarely attend the Committee’s meetings and didn’t participate in the phone vote.

When the Committee’s recommendation came before Council Monday night for approval, Mangone questioned whether the town’s businesses would get a good return on such a large investment in a Butterfly Festival.

“It sounds incredible,” Mangone said, “to spend $7,500 on a festival that we have no knowledge of how many people will be coming and how much the town’s businesses will reap from the event.”

Citing what he learned at a recent workshop he attended sponsored by the state’s Municipal Association, Mangone continued, “We were told we should be looking at how much revenue is going to come in from an event (funded by Hospitality and Accommodations Taxes), not how much to give the group for the event. We were told we should be looking at revenue of 2-3 times the investment. So we should see at least $15,000-$20,000 in return for our $7,500 investment. But there’s no way of knowing if we will bring in anywhere near even $5,000. It sounds like we’re handing out candy because we have it, not because of how much we’ll bring in.”

Mangone told Council that the purpose of the Accommodation Tax Committee is to invest money (in events) that will bring heads to beds and people to our restaurants.

“It’s difficult for me to believe we’re going to bring in anywhere near $7,500 let alone $10,000-$12,000 from the 500-1,000 people Bravo Blythewood says they expect will attend the festival,” he said. “Is this a good investment for our town?”

Both Mayor J. Michael Ross and Councilman Eddie Baughman argued that while the event might not meet expectations from the outset, it might grow.

“I understand from Bravo Blythewood that 10,000 people attended a butterfly festival in Sumter,” Ross said. “You’ve got to start somewhere.”

Ross pointed out that $2,600 of the $7,500 funding would be spent to rent The Manor and park and would therefore be coming back to the Town.

“But when we look at our Hospitality and Accommodations Tax revenue during the month of the event and it’s not significantly higher than normal,” Mangone argued, “then we aren’t bringing heads to beds or the revenue in. If the Town government wants to fund an event from the general fund that’s fine, but not from the Hospitality and Accommodation Tax fund. We need to fund things that will make businesses want to come here.”

Councilman Tom Utroska agreed with Mangone.

“It befuddles me to give just $5,000 to the Beach Bash, a known commodity, but we are giving $7,500 to some unknown commodity (the Butterfly Festival),” Utroska said. “Maybe the Butterfly Festival will start small and get big, but in that case, we ought to start small with the money. I don’t think it should get more money than the Beach Bash.”

The funding for the events passed with Ross and Baughman voting to approve the funding for both events, while Mangone voted for the Beach Bash funding and against the Butterfly Festival funding. Utroska voted for the Beach Bash funding and, after a very long pause, voted for the Butterfly Festival funding as well, but with the caveat that he would not vote for it next year if the numbers and return for the event do not meet expectations.

Bravo Blythewood’s application for funding of the butterfly event listed the Butterfly Festival’s benefit to the community as bringing “outsiders into Blythewood for a unique weekend of shopping, fun and eating.”

Besides the cost for The Manor and park, expenses for the Butterfly Festival were listed as: $300 for the ROTC; $440 for sheriff’s deputies; $350 for butterflies; $560 for a tent; $200 for electricity; $300 for banners; $250 each for a band and dancers; $600 for insurance; $1,000 for advertising and $600 for awards.

After some intense discussion by members of the Town’s Accommodation Tax Committee at a previous meeting held on June 3 about how some organizations have spent money awarded to them from the A-Tax fund in past years, Committee members tightened up the rules for organizations applying for those funds in the future. Applicants are now required to provide receipts for all expenses for events receiving Accommodation Tax funding. According to the motion that passed unanimously, if applicants fail to attach those receipts to a financial report 90 days following the close of the funded event, 20 percent of their approved funds will be withheld and they will not be considered for future funding.