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Blueberry Festival's finances should be more transparent

A spreadsheet would have been nice, all the figures backed up by photocopies of invoices and checks.

I would have accepted a simple list of where the money came from and where it was spent.

Really, at this point, any old document would have kept me from grumbling, as long as it showed some actual bookkeeping. Because all I or anyone else has asked of the Florida Blueberry Festival Inc. is a little more openness, a little more transparency.

And what did I get? Or, more to the point, what did Michael Heard, the group's president, show the Brooksville City Council on Monday in her long-awaited presentation about the festival's finances?

A PowerPoint and a slick, bound booklet that repeated the PowerPoint slides. Lots of pages devoted to copies of the festival's advertisements and media coverage. A few shots from the festival when the crowd was at its peak. And, toward the back, two pages that show the festival's "economic impact" and include some numbers — the total estimated attendance of 40,000 and the 25,000 of these visitors claimed to have come from outside the county — that appear to be little more than informed guesses.

"It's all fluff," said Joe Bernardini, the one City Council member not satisfied with the edification provided by reprints of months-old ads and magazine stories.

In fairness, Heard also reported — orally, the way she usually reports such things — that the festival took in $564,000 and generated only $4,000 in profit.

Yes, as several folks I talked to at the city told me, Heard's organization is a private nonprofit. She isn't legally required to hand over accounts to anybody other than the Internal Revenue Service — and the return for the fiscal year that covered the festival isn't due until November.

They also pointed out that lots of events — a bicycle race organized by my wife, for example — don't open their books to the public.

True enough, and in the interest of full disclosure, my wife, Laura, said she'd be happy to do so if asked, and that the total budget for last October's Brooksville Cycling Classic was $13,000.

So that's one thing that separates the Blueberry Festival from any other event, as far as I know, in the city's history.

Money.

This was touted as big deal, and it was. Maybe the attendance really was close to Heard's estimate. Aside from some expected first-year bugs, it was a great festival.

But it didn't strike me as a half-million-dollar-plus festival. And I think if the planning had been more open — as a lot of people have long suggested — we might have gotten more bang for the buck.

Heard said she got the approval of the festival board to make all spending decisions.

Well, sort of, said Lindsey Morgan, a city administrative assistant and festival board member.

Yes, there were board meetings. But there was no set schedule for when they were held and no policy stating what spending decisions could be made by Heard and which ones needed board approval, Morgan said.

"Overall, everything was handled through Michael," she said. "We would have meetings, and we agreed on all her decisions."

Maybe, if the planning had been a little more collaborative, somebody would have suggested not spending so much on renting air-conditioned buses that were under-used or bleachers that weren't used at all.

A great deal of this money came from people and businesses in the community. Taking that kind of money carries a responsibility to explain how and why you spent it. At least you do if you want to take in anywhere near the same amount the next time.

The other thing that separates the festival from every other event is the degree to which its image and operation are tied to the city's.

Its main reason for being is to bring visitors, attention and business to Brooksville. To put it on, the city closed streets, and gave Heard the use of an office at City Hall and the time of city staffers (much of it donated and off the clock).

No, the group behind the festival isn't quite public. But the event is. And if you want to keep it that way, you might want to tell folks the bottom line.

And a few of the more important lines at the top and in the middle.

Blueberry Festival's finances should be more transparent 09/27/12 [Last modified: Thursday, September 27, 2012 7:38pm]
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