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Cutting their losses

MURFREESBORO – It wasn’t an easy decision to make.

Struggling to balance a budget, one that included a half-million dollars in cuts, Murfreesboro Mayor John Hinton said he came face-to-face with making tough decisions along several fronts.

In the end, Hinton said he had no choice other than to cut $13,000 the town annually budgeted to cover overtime expenses incurred by the Murfreesboro Police Department during the four days of the North Carolina Watermelon Festival.

As reported earlier this week, the festival’s planning committee, following a meeting held Monday, voted to cancel the 2015 event, in part due to a lack of financial support from the town.

“We understand the importance, the impact, the Watermelon Festival has on the town of Murfreesboro,” said Hinton during a telephone interview on Friday afternoon. “We’ve had to make some decisions that we know will prove to be unpopular. We’ve cut our budget by $500,000 and will again go without giving our town employees raises for another year, just as they’ve done without for the past two years. We cannot support a public assembly, a festival, when our employees are going without raises.”

Hinton was adamant when he added, “We did not tell them (the event committee) to cancel the Watermelon Festival; that was a decision they reached. It was not and never has been our intention to see the demise of this festival. Personally, I’ll miss it just as everyone else will.”

The Mayor said he would support an effort by the town’s Chamber of Commerce if they still wanted to conduct a parade on the traditional Saturday date of the festival (this year, that would fall on Aug. 1) and would also support the Murfreesboro Rotary Club’s 5K Run that typically precedes the start of the parade.

“Our issue is with paying our police officers up to 14 hours a day for the four days of the Watermelon Festival,” he noted. “We can no longer afford to do that; and the $13,000 I quoted you earlier only covers the salaries of these officers….it doesn’t take into consideration the collateral fees incurred by the town, such as Social Security and insurance.”

Hinton said they were other costs incurred by the town during the Watermelon Festival, most notably for the work covered by the Public Works and Sanitation departments.

“The festival committee does reimburse us for those incurred costs,” Hinton said. “It’s to my understanding that the festival committee also reimburses the Hertford County Sheriff’s Office for the cost they incur for sending off-duty deputies to assist our police department in providing crowd control and security at the festival.”

When contacted on Friday, Hertford County Sheriff Juan Vaughan confirmed that his office is reimbursed by the festival committee. Vaughan said he traditionally schedules four off-duty deputies to work with the Murfreesboro Police from 6-10 p.m. during the four nights of the festival. He said each officer is paid $15 per hour, for a total of $960 for the entire event.

“Other than having the four off-duty deputies at the festival, there may be others scheduled by the Murfreesboro Police to assist working the gate or within the area where the (carnival) rides are located,” Vaughan said. “The list that I have only has the names of the off-duty officers I schedule to be in Murfreesboro during the four days of the festival.”

Hinton said other than the $13,000 provided by the town to pay its officers for the added time they put in during the festival, Murfreesboro incurs no other costs for this event.

“We do not make any type of contribution to the Watermelon Festival committee; just as we do not help fund any other event here in our town, to include the annual Candlelight Christmas Tour and the Roanoke-Chowan Pork Fest,” he stated.

When asked if an effort by other entities is successful in raising the money necessary to cover the town’s cost to provide police protection during the festival, would he commit those town resources to the 2015 event, Hinton said he would be happy to do so.

“I will support any effort made by anyone to save the Watermelon Festival,” he concluded.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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