NEW PORT RICHEY — The rich tradition of Chasco Fiesta — Pasco's oldest, largest and longest festival — will kick off March 23, but keeping the celebration going didn't come easy this year.
Budget cuts forced organizers to pare back, shaving two days off the once 11-day event and cutting or consolidating some of the activities. Native American Night, which traditionally kicked off Chasco with dancing and live music from performers like flutist and fiddler Arvel Bird, is gone. The American Indian dance competitions and educational presentations, previously spread over two weekends, are now packed into a three-day Native American Pow Wow and Festival that runs March 23-25.
"We never want to lose days, but this will ensure that we keep our Native American heritage that is such a big part of Chasco," said Chasco executive director Kristen King.
Planners scrambled to organize this year's festival after city officials announced last summer that New Port Richey would slash its funding of special events.
As the city felt the squeeze of shrinking tax revenue and the strain of real estate debt, officials decided they could no longer foot the entire bill for providing police officers, firefighters and public works and parks crews to facilitate downtown events. Chasco was the largest recipient of that support, receiving an estimated $80,000 in city services.
Initially, officials considered cutting off their entire support, and the West Pasco Chamber of Commerce considered pulling the event out of the city. The City Council later approved a compromise that provided $40,000 in services for the event.
Planners made strategic cuts and turned to an army of volunteers to keep the festival strong. Chasco will still feature the popular street and boat parades, the carnival midway and nine nights of live music. Ultimately, King said she doesn't expect patrons will notice much of a difference.
"All in all, I think its going to wonderful," she said.
Entry fees for floats in the popular street parade jumped from $100 to $200, and there's a new $25 charge for nonprofits to enter. But King said the March 24 parade will be just as packed as usual, with about 100 floats.
Other cost cutting measures included slashing $20,000 worth of television ads and making additional changes to entertainment. Organizers nixed Noche Latina and Dancing Under the Stars, and instead added a youth music showcase for March 26. Not only did it cut the entertainment costs for that night, it will allow young people to show off their talents, King said.
This year's lineup also features "A Grateful Nation" on March 28, a concert hosted by the Sand Soldiers of America to honor the military, first responders and their families. Critically acclaimed songwriter and vocalist Julie Black will open that night for Odyssey Road, a Journey tribute band.
With the use of city services scaled back, Chasco will count on an unprecedented amount of volunteers this year. In fact, with no money in the budget for an annual paid assistant to work on logistics, the team of volunteers will be overseen by a volunteer, King said.
"It's really been awesome to see people step up and volunteer. It's a tough year for us. It's a tough year for everyone," King said. "But people know that and we have entertainers charging us less, and just more people looking to help us."
Still, there have been rocky moments between the city and organizers, including a tense exchange last week over the tab for the event.
For the first time, the city and Chasco have a "memorandum of understanding," a contract of sorts that outlines costs and responsibilities of the event. It will be a standard procedure for all special events in the future.
At a meeting last week, City Council members bristled at a stipulation that said Chasco would only be responsible for up to $5,000 if the city's costs exceed the $40,000 sponsorship.
Deputy Mayor Rob Marlowe, a downtown business owner and vocal critic of Chasco, said taxpayers should not be on the hook for anything more than $40,000, and spoke of past Chasco organizers' spending.
"The Chasco event planners thought it was their God-given right to spend taxpayers' money, and that's wrong. It's just flat wrong," Marlowe said.
Officials reached a compromise: The city will cover the overage if their own estimates for their services were too low, while Chasco will get the tab for any additional costs if their volunteers fall short of their duties.
"It's been a long process. The city's staff has been fantastic," King said. "It's been hard on all of us only because it's the first time for both of us. And that not knowing has added to the frustration."