Council members say group’s directors must answer for squandering public funds on money-losing event
Several Port Washington aldermen on Tuesday called for the resignation of the members of the Main Street Inc. board of directors, saying they need to be held accountable for squandering public money on the
Rock the Harbor Harley-Davidson festival and leaving the organization that’s dedicated to promoting downtown in a financially precarious position.
“If this was private industry, heads would be rolling,” Ald. Dan Becker said. “This was a financial debacle for Main Street. The rainy day fund is gone.
“I think everybody should resign and reapply (for their positions).”
Becker said he was especially frustrated because the mood at the Main Street Inc. board meeting just prior to the Common Council session was “jovial,” not serious, even as the group faces a budget shortfall of
$20,000 to $25,000 from Rock the Harbor.
Becker wasn’t the only alderman calling for change.
“I think people need to be held accountable,” Ald. Dave Larson said. “I do think we need to evaluate what happened here. It seems to me the board made some bad decisions and doesn’t seem to realize it.
“I agree this board needs to be disassembled and rebuilt from the ground up.”
The need for change is so great, aldermen said, that it could impact their decision whether to continue funding the Main Street program.
Main Street Inc., which was formed in 2008, is primarily funded through a tax on properties in the Business Improvement District downtown and a $25,000 contribution from the city.
“Saying ‘We learned’ isn’t enough,” Larson said. “The city’s been embarrassed. Unless we see some changes being made, that’s not enough.”
Ald. Doug Biggs concurred, saying he has heard nothing to indicate that anything has changed.
“I’m concerned hearing what I’m hearing,” he said.
The publicity resulting from the festival shortfall isn’t sullying the reputation of Main Street as much as it is the city’s, Biggs added.
“It’s a black eye for the city, not Main Street,” he said.
Becker told Main Street board president Rob Helm, “We’re going to want to see some changes, some assurances. What’s going to happen going forward? Your entire body was behind this event.”
The city isn’t trying to punish Main Street, he added, noting it has a vested interest in its success.
“The council wants nothing but good for Main Street,” he said.
Anger and frustration on the part of the elected officials spilled over even as Helm said that the organization has enough money in reserves to cover operating expenses through the remainder of this year despite
the Rock the Harbor losses.
“It is going to eat up our reserves,” Helm said. “I’m thankful we don’t have to ask for more money at this point.”
However, that doesn’t include funding for the October Harvest at the Market or December Christmas on the Corners, he said. The holiday event is largely covered by sponsorships, and the Chamber of Commerce
has also offered to help with the festival, he said.
His budget figures, which were shared with the Main Street board, show the organization ending the year with a $1,300 deficit. The projection is predicated on the group receiving $4,000 each from two fundraisers,
the sale of sky lanterns for the Coal Dock Park celebration on Sept. 28 and a Comedy Night planned for November.
Two other fundraisers being contemplated by Main Street, the sale of T-shirts and sweatshirts and a so-called door-to-door campaign, are not included.
Main Street has $24,000 in its accounts today, Helm said, and there is about $16,000 in outstanding bills for Rock the Harbor. The organization’s monthly expenses are about $6,000, he said.
The council’s reaction was in sharp contrast to that of the Main Street board, which had few comments on the matter.
Rock the Harbor co-organizer Cathy Wilger told the board that the final numbers still aren’t tallied since not all the invoices or revenues have been received.
“It’s going to be weeks before we know,” she said.
But she said the festival did what it was intended to do, bring people to downtown and expose them to all that Port has to offer. Many businesses were pleased with the results, she said, with people returning after
the event to shop in Port.
That sentiment was reiterated by several business owners at the meeting, who said the festival drew shoppers throughout the weekend.
But aldermen said that even if the organization doesn’t need an infusion of cash to weather this storm, it needs to stand up to scrutiny for squandering public money.
When asked why Main Street Executive Director Sara Grover wasn’t in charge of Rock the Harbor, given her experience putting on successful festivals, Helm said that Rock the Harbor wasn’t truly a Main Street
Organizers Amy Gannon and Wilger, who were both on the board at the time, needed a nonprofit group to sign the contracts for the festival and sought Main Street’s help, he said. At the time, the event was
considered to have the potential to be a fundraiser for Main Street, he added.
“In hindsight, obviously, that wasn’t what happened,” Helm said.
City Administrator Mark Grams noted that festival organizers repeatedly told the city they would not use any Main Street funds.
“That was the promise made to the very end,” he said. “It didn’t happen.”
Whenever organizers were asked about their fundraising progress, Grams said, “They came back with ‘Don’t worry, it’ll come in. It’ll come in.’”
Despite the fact the shortfall was evident early on, the Main Street board agreed to sign festival contracts for the organizers, Grams said.
Helm admitted the Main Street board wasn’t thorough enough in its oversight of the festival.
“To be honest, we made mistakes,” he said, noting board members trusted festival organizers who repeatedly said they would bring in enough money to cover expenses.
“There were things we weren’t watching as closely as we should have, things that won’t happen again,” Helm said.
The organizers estimated they would receive twice as much in sponsorships for the festival — $60,000 — than they brought in, Helm said, but by the time the Main Street board realized that, it was too late.
Mayor Tom Mlada, a member of the Main Street board, said he, too, failed to question organizers adequately.
“I felt I did not fulfil my obligation,” he said, adding the board should have set fundraising deadlines and insisted the festival organizers meet them.
“We never received anything beyond assurances,” Mlada said.
When Biggs asked what the Main Street board’s reaction to the Rock the Harbor problems are, Helm told him it is “mixed.”
“I’ve heard pros and I’ve heard cons,” he said.
Upon finding out that Wilger remains on the Main Street board, Biggs asked if there had been any “public requests for her resignation” — something Helm said hasn’t occurred.
Biggs also asked if the board was on track to meet its 2013 fundraising goal.
It is not, Helm said, adding that most of the organization’s fundraising is done during the fourth quarter.
Grover told the Main Street board during its meeting that of the $30,000 in anticipated fundraising budgeted, only $1,500 has been received.