\LONG BEACH - The two items on the Long Beach City Council's agenda for Jan. 4 - establishing a public hearing date for a 9th Street vacation request and establishing a per diem rate for meals for city staff travel - caused only mild discussion, but debate heated up during the public comment period.
The source of controversy was a letter sent to the various festival committees by the Lodging Tax Advisory Committee (LTAC), a volunteer organization which advises the city council on the most effective ways to distribute the funds raised by the lodging tax to promote the city of Long Beach. As with the rest of the city's budget, the final decision for the dispersal of these funds is at the discretion of the city council.
Each year, the council sets aside money to help support the various non-profit, volunteer driven festivals that take place, such as Loyalty Days, the Water Music Festival, the Kite Festival, and SandSations. The festivals help draw in tourists and support the local economy. But, as with any non-profit or public funds, the money must be accounted for and state and federal guidelines must be followed.
Bob Andrew, newly elected Long Beach Merchants Association president and Loyalty Days organizer, raised concerns about the letter. It asks the various festivals give a formal presentation to LTAC on their budget requests of the city, including a line-item budget for the previous year, a line-item budget for the upcoming year, support requests such as law enforcement, tent and trolley use and city property use, contact information and tentative meeting dates, as well as a copy of their 501c(3) federal non-profit documentation.
"It's a little bit confusing," said Andrew. He wanted to know why the request was being made, and if fund levels for the festivals will be jeopardized or radically changed as a result of the presentations.
Mayor Ken Ramsey tried to reassure Andrew. "It's a new process," he said, and the funding levels will not change. The new process includes having a representative attend festivals meetings to increase communication and coordinate support requests.
Council member Fred Cook, city liaison and chairman of the Lodging Tax Advisory Committee, was unable to attend the council meeting, so City Administrator Robert Strope tried to address some of the questions and concerns.
But council member Ralph Moore strongly objected.
"That's an awful lot of work for volunteers," he said. He pointed out that most of the work is done by a very small number of dedicated people in the community, and he is concerned the new process will drive them or new volunteers away.
Strope said the request is not unusual, they probably already have the information, and it will help protect the city, as the letter states, from "increased scrutiny by the State Auditor's Office," and lawsuits which might arise from confusion over responsibilities for liability insurance.
"None of us want to do anything that's illegal," said Andrew, indicating he is more than willing to follow the guidelines and rules, he just wants to know how.
Moore objected, though, more to the method of the request.
"I don't think we need another layer between volunteers and the council. I don't like to be blindsided," he said. He, as well as other council members, had been unaware of the letter and its contents.
"This is our budget, not LTAC's," he said. "I think circumventing the council is a bad idea."
Council member Gordon Zuern agreed. "LTAC shouldn't dictate to us."
"I don't think the letter was meant to offend," said Ramsey. He suggested perhaps the tone or wording of the letter signed by Cook led to the confusion, although the letter does start out "I would like to thank you and your fellow volunteers for all you do."
"I feel like I'm getting shot as the messenger," said Strope.
When some of the dust settled, all agreed the new process is a good idea.
"I like the tracking of how our money is spent," said Ramsey, but perhaps was the process was going forward a bit quickly.
New Council member Jerry Phillips summed up the discussion by saying the process was "a day late and a dollar short for this year. We need to set the foundation and do it the right way."
The council directed the staff to inform the festivals to disregard the letter. Later they will hold roundtable discussions with the volunteer groups, city council and staff to determine the best way to make the changes to the process. They also praised the work of LTAC, when a member of the audience, asking for clarification, said "sounds like we don't need them."
Moore immediately jumped to their defense. "Don't get me wrong," he said, "we need them."
The council also voted to allow a per diem, or daily travel food allowance, of $35 a day, saving the city money on paperwork and accounting time, and set a date of Feb. 1 at 7 p.m. for a public hearing on the vacation of the western portion of 9th St. SW, giving up the public right-of-way.
"It's one more step getting us closer to Trendwest, or at least some resort," said Moore.