CB overtime more than city reported

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Records show the city of Belen paid thousands of dollars to cover employee wages for the privately sponsored, poorly attended, expensively priced Celebrate Belen's Country and Americana Music Festival in August.

Employees from several departments logged more than 350 overtime and comp hours at a cost of about $5,500 for work related to the summer music festival that organizers hoped would attract "outside people" to bring economic development to Belen.

Comp hours are hours worked outside an employee's regular schedule that don't meet the standards for overtime compensation.

Belen City Councilor Wayne Gallegos said those numbers don't seem normal, considering the city usually averages about $3,000 to cover payroll for special events, such as the Christmas time Miracle on Main Street Festival and the city's Fourth of July celebration.

"If we round it out to five thousand, that is still a bit high," Gallegos said. "If those are your real numbers, they might be high for the day."

The figures came from two sets of documents the city provided to the News-Bulletin after more than two months of filing repeated Inspection of Public Records Act requests to review payroll and other records concerning the festival.

City officials refused to provide detailed records showing the exact amount spent on labor as requested, but instead provided copies of supervisor-approved time sheets and a city of Belen payroll report for the Aug. 10 to Aug. 23 pay period.

Therefore to get the totals, the employees' overtime and comp hours, from supervisor-approved time sheets, were multiplied by the hourly wage in the comp/overtime section on the payroll report under the employee's name for the Aug. 17 festival date.

Of the 38 employees shown to have worked the event, 15 clocked 12 hours or more and nearly half of those received time-and-a-half for working a 16-hour day. The others listed worked less than 12 hours.

Gallegos said many of the long hours probably could be attributed to key employees working to monitor generators so that food vendors had electricity to operate.

Celebrate Belen is a volunteer organization comprised of city officials and private citizens, including the city's Planning and Zoning Director /Public Information Officer Steve Tomita, City Councilor David Carter and Jan Johnson of Rio Communities.

The private organization recently registered as a domestic nonprofit with the New Mexico Secretary of State's office, but has yet to receive a 501(c)3 nonprofit designation from the federal government, allowing it to conduct business as a nonprofit.

Volunteers created the organization to plan, organize and promote events, independent of the city, that they hope will increase economic development.

The music festival was the group's first event. At least 1,000 people were expected at the festival, Johnson said, but she estimates only 250 people attended the day-long event on Becker Avenue.

City Councilor Jareh Cordova said he supports the city working with private organizations on projects that promote Belen, but he was under the impression that private donors would fund the festival.

"I think the way that this was originally set up was supposed to be an independent nonprofit and they weren't going to use city resources and, of course, we know what happened," said Cordova.

"They ended up using more city resources than expected and that is reflected in the numbers you're seeing," Cordova said.

City Manager Mary Lucy Baca had not anticipated overtime to be an issue.

During a September City Council meeting, Baca said overtime would be logged for the event, but it shouldn't be excessive because, in a memo, she directed supervisors to schedule employees to work the weekend festival and take another day off.

"The city uses a lot of city manpower to assist in other functions, yet that has never come into question," Baca said at that council meeting.

However, the overtime cost is nearly double the amount Baca reported in a Sept. 10 email.

"The city pays approximately $3,000 in overtime for each event held by or sponsored by the city of Belen," Baca wrote.

Neither Baca nor Tomita responded to the New-Bulletin's repeated questions or requests for interviews to discuss the city's financial role during the planning and execution of the festival.

The city's attorney Marcus Rael also did not respond to News-Bulletin requests for comment.

In a September letter to city officials, Cordova questioned whether the city's financial involvement in the event violated the state's anti-donation and lodgers tax laws.

New Mexico's anti-donation law prohibits local, county or state governments from "directly or indirectly lending or pledging (their) credit or make any donations to or in aid of any person, association or public or private corporation."

Conversely, the lodgers tax governs how city officials disburse and use tax money collected from area hotels and motels.

Gallegos said he isn't sure if the city's wage expenditure for the festival violated the state's anti-donation law.

"We have to very careful. You know our intent," Gallegos said of the festival's purpose. "But if it's wrong, it's wrong. And, if we need to fix that, we need to fix that."

The poorly-attended festival began to attract scrutiny the following Monday during a city council meeting. Questioned about the event's financial standing, Baca told councilors she was working on how the city was "going to pay it off. We're in the hole, big time."

Then in early September, Cordova sent a letter to city officials asking for a special audit to review use of public funds for the event. He also asked the city to provide legal reasons for using public money.

In July, to help cover the festival's operational costs, Baca authorized $10,000 from the city's lodgers tax account. Four days before the festival, she authorized another $15,000 from the same account.

These two entries came after the lodgers tax committee denied her initial request for $7,000 to help fund the event.

After that denial, several members of committee resigned and, for a brief time, the committee lacked enough members to approve and disburse funds.

Baca has said publicly she authorized the use of the $25,000 because there wasn't a lodger's tax committee in place to field the request and she was confident Celebrate Belen would reimburse the money once the organization collected funds from sponsors.

City records show that more than a week after the festival, Celebrate Belen issued a check to the city to replace the $25,000. That money did not include the payroll expenses the city incurred, only the cost associated with planning and organizing the festival.

Cordova said the lodgers tax situation presents an excellent opportunity to explore new ways of updating the way the city disburses the funds.

"We need to consider very seriously what sort of procedural changes we need to make on how the lodgers tax functions or how the city distributes the lodgers tax," he said, "to ensure everything is always done properly and that there is always accountability in the process itself. The city's administration has certainly taken steps in the right direction."

Cordova is referring to the city council's recent approval of a new system for dispensing the lodgers taxes it collects from area hotels and motels to promote tourism. (See Page 2 for complete story.)

State law requires that all monies collected from it go toward promoting and sustaining tourism and tourist-related events.

Right now, the city has $47,000 in lodgers tax funds that it plans to disperse to several area organizations to promote activities they hope will attract visitors to the area.

Under the city's new system, the organization receiving funds must use the money to advertise and market local events and must present receipts to the lodgers tax committee within 60 days of the event. Those failing to do so will not be considered for future disbursements.

The changes, implemented in October, stem from concerns regarding the festival's funding.

Mayor Rudy Jaramillo would not answer any questions regarding use of lodgers tax funds or employee wages for Celebrate Belen's Country and Americana Music Festival.

Instead, he deferred all questions to the city's administrative staff.

"They run the city," the mayor said of Baca and Tomita. "They don't let me talk to the media.

"If you want a good taco or burrito, go to Rutillos," Jaramillo said, laughing. "That is my job."