Celebrate Belen in the black, amount of city-paid overtime still unknown

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There was a lot of sound and fury at the city of Belen council meeting Tuesday night as councilors and the mayor thrashed out just how much the recent Celebrate Belen's Country and Americana Music Festival actually cost the city.

After more than an hour of talking, the answer still wasn't entirely clear.

Things got off to a rocky start as Mayor Rudy Jaramillo spent several minutes scolding a councilor for requesting an audit of the festival's financials. At the Aug. 19 council meeting, Councilor Jerah Cordova requested a "special audit" of the use of public funds for the event.

"I am about transparency," Jaramillo said. "If we haven't been transparent for the last three years, then something is wrong. My integrity has been challenged," Jaramillo then stood up. "I would call on anyone to come stand next to me. I have gotten calls that no one does anything except this councilor. Well this councilor has stepped down from several committees and appointments, and I would like to see this councilor say why he stepped down, for transparency."

The mayor also defended city manager Lucy Baca, saying she did her job well and Cordova's letter requesting the audit made it seem like she was being unresponsive.

"She was already going to do (a report). She said so at the last meeting," Jaramillo said. "The information wasn't ready." The council met just two days after the festival.

Baca said as Celebrate Belen closed the books on the music festival, its bank account was in the black, to the tune of $5,176. She said the event did well even though the group's request for lodger's tax funds from the city was rejected. Baca emphasized that all the invoices for the event were paid out of Celebrate Belen's private checking account and that all donation checks were made out to Celebrate Belen.

Despite the low attendance, high entry fee, being too spread out along Becker Avenue and competing against the Our Lady of Belen Fiestas, Baca said those who did attend the festival had encouraging words.

"There was not an 'inability to successfully collect sponsorships and other fund-raising amounts,'" she said. "We knew we were not going to be able to collect all needed monies up front."

So knowing that, Celebrate Belen borrowed $25,000 from the city's lodger's promotional fund, Baca said.

The financial report indicates that amount was repaid to the fund on Aug. 30. It shows deposits to the Celebrate Belen account of $10,000 and $15,000 on July 9 and Aug. 16, respectively. The report also shows a deposit of $15,000 from anonymous donors on Aug. 22, the day a story about the disappointing turnout for the festival and Cordova's request for an audit appeared in the Valencia County News-Bulletin.

Both Jaramillo and Baca criticized Cordova for not only putting his audit request in writing, but for providing a copy of it to the newspaper.

"We have received many comments about how the newspaper article was inappropriate," Baca said. "Staff was not given the courtesy to submit a report as promised, yet the requests were made as though they were original councilor thoughts or that staff was being unresponsive to a request."

The handling of the festival fallout has led to decreased morale among the staff, Baca said, because it "blatantly implied that staff and volunteers who dedicated tremendous effort are incapable of accounting for such an event."

Baca said the "premature and unnecessary action" may have jeopardized future sponsorships, including one for $20,000.

Councilor Audrey Torres-Vallejos said the reason she requested an audit was due to numerous questions she had gotten from city employees and residents.

"This should have been kept in-house, not taken to the paper," Torres-Vallejos said. "Anyone who wants information can ask for it. No one should ever think they can't ask for information from the council or the mayor."

Saying that some people only showed up at council meetings to "complain, whine and belly ache," Councilor David Carter said they have done nothing to help the city.

"If that's all you want to do, you can go somewhere else," Carter said.

Carter then lambasted the News-Bulletin for reporting on the concerns raised about the festival at a city council meeting two weeks ago, saying he would continue to refer to the publication as the "Los Lunas News-Bulletin" until its editorial stance changed.

Councilors have frequently and publicly complained that the News-Bulletin does not give the city equal coverage and when it does report on Belen issues, it does so in a negative manner.

Cordova circled back to the $25,000 the event organizers borrowed from the city's lodger's tax fund, pointing out that state statute calls for approval by a lodger's tax committee to disburse that money.

He asked if Baca had the approval of the city's lodger's tax committee. She said she did not.

On the subject of the $15,000 from the movie production company, Cordova said he was initially told the money would be used for renovations of the old city hall.

"Now I find out that there was a check issued directly to the festival," Cordova said. The city's economic director Steve Tomita said the producers of the movie weren't inclined to come up with any money for the city, so the movie's site location manager decided to reserve some funding for the city.

"It was (the location manager's) decision, he wanted it to go towards the festival," Tomita said. "He asked Celebrate Belen to issue an invoice for the festival."

Whether the festival would be privately or publicly funded was discussed several times, Cordova said, with the final decision coming down on the side of private.

"It was not my understanding that any amount would come out of public, city funding," he said. "And it did twice, without going through the proper process."

Cordova said he was also told that a directive was issued for mandatory overtime for some city employees because the festival organizers were running into trouble getting volunteers.

Baca said a directive was sent out to department supervisors telling them to schedule some employees for the Saturday event and to have them take off another day during the week.

"There was some overtime incurred but I don't have those figures," Baca said. "And there have been other functions where there was a lot of city manpower that was never questioned." Cordova said he agreed but reiterated that he wanted to see the final amount the city paid in overtime for the festival.

The city manager said the event was always privately funded.

"But we were coming up short, so we borrowed the money knowing it would come back," Baca said.

Carter suggested the transactions be documented since it would most likely be a finding for the city during next year's audit.

"They didn't follow the policy with the lodgers tax committee," Carter said. "But there was no ill will, no money missing, no misappropriation of funds."

Belen resident Matt Ornelas said that while Carter may view the situation as "no harm, no foul," the city's procedure on disbursing lodger's tax funds wasn't followed.

"You got in a situation and handled it as you thought best but you still did it wrong," Ornelas said. "And the paper is the transparency. Keeping it 'in house' isn't transparent."

Celebrate Belen volunteer and organizer Jan Johnson said she had a serious problem with the article in the paper.

"I think Councilor Cordova could have benefited from some information before making accusations," Johnson said. "I greatly don't appreciate having assertions made in the newspaper that are not true.

"I spoke to you (Cordova) right before that council meeting and you could have asked me anything. It wasn't fair and it wasn't right. I don't know why you did it, but it wasn't wise Jerah."


-- Email the author at jdendinger@news-bulletin.com.