Vendor fee debated

Published 10:24 am Thursday, January 26, 2012

MURFREESBORO — A vendor fee charged by town officials is being questioned by the Murfreesboro Watermelon Festival Organization.

On Tuesday, Laurie Brook, Watermelon Festival event coordinator, spoke to the board about reconsidering lowering the amount of the lump sum vendor fee agreed upon last year by town and festival officials.

Involved in the discussion were only two council members.

Councilman Hal Thomas asked to be excused from the vote due to a conflict of interest as he serves as treasurer for the Watermelon Festival Organization. Councilman Randy Roberts opted out due to his relationship to Brook.

Additionally, Councilman Craig Dennis was absent from the meeting, leaving only Councilwoman Gloria Odum and Mayor Pro-tempore Sarah Wallace to discuss the issue.

At first council members debated whether or not to table the issue until next meeting when Dennis could be present, but Brook said the matter was time sensitive.

“I think we can listen to it, if it does have to come to a vote tonight then at that time we’ll accept a motion for Councilman Thomas and Councilman Roberts to be excused from the vote,” said Mayor John Hinton. “We will listen to your presentation at this time.”

Brook said a small group of the Watermelon Festival Committee had met and gone over some issues regarding the festival being a non-profit organization and the lump sum fee the group had to pay to the town for vendor permits.

Last year in an effort to combat vendors setting up on the street, the council agreed to charge the Watermelon Festival Organization $2,500 for vendor permits as well as adopted an ordinance that made it unlawful for vendors to sell items during the time of the festival without obtaining a permit from the Watermelon Festival Committee.

“Last year we agreed upon a flat fee schedule at the time,” Brook said. “A couple issues on that, the flat fee schedule was very hurtful for our financials this year because of the attendance level of vendors”

Brook noted the fluctuation of vendor attendance at the festival. She said the level of vendors vary from a minimum of 75 to the maximum of 100.

“We haven’t seen that (maximum) number in years because of the economy,” she said.

Brook referred to the town’s special event permit application which she said the Watermelon Festival would fall under.

“The fee for that is $25,” she said.

Brook said last year what was presented to the committee by the members of the town council was a sheet of paper listing certain amounts for different types of vendors.

“We were under the premise, the way it was presented to us, that the fees that were on this paper were fees in the ordinances,” she said.

Wallace responded that the council regulated the vendors to keep them off the streets and to localize them at the festival grounds.

After further discussion, Brook said the regulation was not done to protect the Watermelon Festival.

“It was the town that didn’t want these vendors other places because they couldn’t monitor them and they couldn’t afford getting them out of there,” she said.

Brook suggested that the festival have a $25 fee “like everyone else” or if the festival is to pay more to have the lump sum fee at a “significantly reduced rate.”

“I think there needs to be clarity on why that (the ordinance) was even passed and it was, indeed, to help the Watermelon Festival,” Odum responded.

Odum asked Code Enforcement Officer Gene Flowers if the regulation was put in place because the town could not monitor the outside vendors.

Flowers said he did monitor this past year and there were no vendors on the streets.

“The year before I had 21 vendors I pulled off the street,” he said.

“It (the ordinance) was to move them inside the festival,” said Odum.

Odum continued by saying that she was under the assumption that Brook along with Police Chief Darrell Rowe and others were on the committee that agreed on the fee.

“The fee was set and it was brought back to us and we passed it, you all had agreed to that,” Odum said.

Brook said the problem with the fee was after knowing what the town ordinances are on special events.

“The way it was presented to us…and this is a bad word, but we assumed, we assumed that this was what was in the ordinance,” Brook said. “We thought we were getting a discount rate, but we’re not. If we had our maximum vendors there would be $2,500.”

She added festival organizers prefer, if they had to, charging the vendors $25 and pay the town based on how many vendors participate.

After further discussion, Wallace suggested the council table the issue so the attorney could go back and check his records and also have Councilman Dennis present.

Mayor Hinton also advised the matter be tabled.

“I think I can speak for council. We certainly want the Watermelon Festival to succeed because it is a flagship of our community and certainly Eastern North Carolina,” he said. “We certainly want it to succeed, but I don’t think we’re prepared tonight because we’re kind of caught flat footed on this deal.”

Hinton said the council could arrange a special meeting for the matter before the end of February.

Hinton suggested Brook meet with town officials on the matter.