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County dollars support Melon Fest

WINTON – An infusion of county dollars just may prove to be what saves the 2015 North Carolina Watermelon Festival.

At their regular scheduled meeting here Monday morning, the Hertford County Board of Commissioners unanimously agreed to a one-time appropriation from its fund balance – not to exceed $15,000 – to help ensure that the 2015 event goes on as planned. The money will be used to provide security at the Festival.

However, in agreeing to funnel county dollars into the event, the Commissioners said they needed some questions answered regarding what the Festival committee has paid for security and grounds keeping during previous years. The board – flashing looks of bewilderment when reading the dollar amount – was particularly interested in what the Festival pays annually to the Town of Murfreesboro.

An April 28th letter sent by Lynette Bunch, president of NC Watermelon Festival, Inc., to Bill Mitchell, chairman of the Hertford County Commissioners, cited that the Town of Murfreesboro paid roughly $11,627 from their budget to cover the cost of their police officers who worked security at the 2014 Watermelon Festival. Another 2014 cost was $12,854.11 incurred by the town’s Public Works Department to set-up the grounds for the Festival.

Last month, Murfreesboro officials broke the news to the Festival committee that the town could no longer cover these costs due to budget concerns. That prompted the Festival committee to cancel the 2015 event, a move they later had second thoughts over following public outcry.

Bunch told the Commissioners that the Festival committee has covered the costs of overtime incurred by Murfreesboro Police officers working the festival. They are also responsible to pay law enforcement officers from other agencies – to include the Hertford County Sheriff’s Office and Ahoskie Police Department – that assist the Murfreesboro Police in providing security during the traditional four days of the event.

In her letter, Bunch stated that additional security came at a cost of $5,280 last year. Additionally, the committee reimbursed the Town of Murfreesboro $3,848 for the overtime incurred by the Public Works department for the clean-up work they performed at the 2014 Festival.

All of that, she said, came on the heels of a 2014 event that suffered approximately $9,200 in losses due to inclement weather.

“Due to public outcry, the (Festival) Board of Directors met April 26 to assess the status of the 2015 Festival,” Bunch wrote in her letter. “The tremendous influx of support from area citizens is motivating the Directors to explore all avenues of alternate funding.”

At the outset of the discussion to possibly funnel county dollars into the 2015 Festival, Mitchell wanted to know if any adjustments were planned to the costs of providing security or would Murfreesboro officials require the same amount they had in years past.

“Depending on what you decide today, we will meet with those providing security and I’ll find the answer to your question,” Bunch replied. “It is my thought that they will want the same level they’ve always had.”

Bunch added the contention of the Festival directors is that the amount paid for security is “excessive.”

“We’ve asked them to pare that down,” she said.

Commissioner Curtis Freeman said he would like to have Hertford County Sheriff Juan Vaughan comment on this issue.

“I understand there is a cost standard fee that law enforcement personnel around our county charge to work events such as this Festival,” Freeman noted. “I want to ensure that’s being done and agencies such as Murfreesboro are not charging more….not saying that they currently are overcharging. I think our Sheriff needs to have a little say-so in the security at this event. We need to make sure this is done right and at a fair price. The amount I saw (being paid for security) doesn’t look right to me.”

Commissioner Johnnie Ray Farmer said from what he understands, the Festival directors are planning on making some changes to the event’s format, to include a $1 admission charge this year, to help financially sustain the event for years to come.

“I know the rain hurt your finances last year; that’s something beyond your control,” Farmer said. “I see this as a one-time need for the Watermelon Festival. I know the citizens have stood up and backed this event. I don’t want to see this festival end, it’s good for Murfreesboro and it’s good for Hertford County. I think we should do all we can to help them this year.”

Commissioner Ronald Gatling agreed, but added that he would like to see the security costs re-negotiated.

“That’s a pretty high figure,” Gatling said of the 2014 security costs.

Sheriff Vaughan said he traditionally assigns four deputies per night (four hours each) to provide assistance to the Murfreesboro Police during the four days of the Festival. At $15 per hour, Vaughan said the four-day total is $960.

“I’m not sure of the number, but there is extra law enforcement working the gate and inside the carnival area, but I’m not sure of the total costs; all I know is how much my four deputies are paid for the four nights they work,” Vaughan stated.

Bunch said last year, the Festival wrote checks to 33 law enforcement officers providing security.

“That’s just the checks we wrote; that doesn’t count what the town was paying their officers during normal hours, their normal shift,” Bunch noted. “By the time the Murfreesboro officers get to us, they’re on overtime, at $30 per hour (a cost passed on to the Festival committee).”

That statement puzzled Freeman.

“This event is held in Murfreesboro; you have all these people coming not only to support the Watermelon Festival, but Murfreesboro, and they’re not willing to assist in security,” Freeman stressed.

“It would appear to me that the Town of Murfreesboro should have some amount of obligation,” Gatling chimed in. “This is a major event, a significant event for them.”

Hertford County Manager Loria Williams said from what she was hearing in Monday morning’s dialogue was that the town of Murfreesboro was so financially strapped that they could no longer provide security and clean-up at the Festival.

“We have opinions about what Murfreesboro should and should not be doing, but we have very little authority in that respect,” Williams remarked. “If you (commissioners) are not comfortable with the dollar amount asked of you that you’ll be sending over to pay for security as it’s now provided, I suggest you do not send it. If you want to create security for the Festival, that’s between the Sheriff and the committee. We can’t anticipate Murfreesboro doing anything they choose not to do….we have no authority.”

Williams suggested negotiating the dollar amount paid to cover the cost of Festival security.

“The hours (by law enforcement) can be pre-designated and we’ll write the check to who it needs to be written to,” she added. “That can be worked out between a meeting of the Sheriff, the Murfreesboro Police Chief and the Festival Committee,”

Vaughan stated that security at the event should not fall completely in the lap of his office.

“I’ll have a conversation today with (Murfreesboro) Chief (Darrell) Rowe,” Vaughan stated. “They (Murfreesboro) should provide security, with us and other agencies providing assistance. I will get the numbers (cost) you are seeking.”

Farmer suggested that Vaughan appoint one of his deputies as chief of security at the festival.

“That would make this board feel better about putting county money into this event,” Farmer said.

Mitchell recommended that Vaughan meet with Rowe and asked the Sheriff to inform the commissioners immediately of that conversation.

In the meantime, the commissioners approved an appropriation to the Watermelon Festival not to exceed $15,000.

“That will give the parties involved some parameters to work with,” Williams concluded.

Following Monday’s meeting, Bunch said the Festival directors will meet within 48 hours to discuss whether or not to proceed with the 2015 event.

“It’s looking good,” she told the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald. “Personally, I feel we will move forward with having the Festival this year….and beyond. We thank our commissioners for their support and the community for their support.”

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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