DECATUR — The city's deficit has raised the stakes on the Decatur City Council's Tuesday vote to approve the security fence for the 2018 Decatur Celebration.

"If we deny the fence, the Celebration is done. It's as simple as that," said Mayor Julie Moore Wolfe. The mayor argues that organizers will not be able to plan without knowing it will generate the type of revenue the fence created in 2017, when the event charged admission for the first time in its 32 year-history. 

But council members say they are approaching the city's financial support of Decatur Celebration with a more critical eye after approving a $3.2 million deficit in December.

The city has sent notices to a list of local organizations it has lent taxpayer support to over the years — including the nonprofit organization, Decatur Celebration Inc., that organizes the August festival — with the warning that those funds may be reduced or eliminated later this year, when the council is set to revisit the city's budget plan.

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Celebration_Fence 1 08.04.17.jpg

CLAY JACKSON, HERALD & REVIEW Dark clouds surround the carnival Thursday near the Decatur Civic Center on East Williams Street.

According to a budget presentation to city officials in November, the city spends roughly $70,000 a year for Decatur Celebration in security and cleanup, which includes overtime hours for city police, fire, and public works crews. 

Lori Sturgill, Decatur Celebration's producer, and Celebration Board President Kendall Briscoe did not respond to requests for comment on Friday.

Councilwoman Lisa Gregory, who voted for the 2017 security fence, expressed reluctance to do so again this year. The council approved the fence on a 6-1 vote in July, just ahead of the festival. 

"As we move forward on anything that has a cost associated with it, I'm going to have to look at very differently," Gregory said.

Though Decatur Celebration would cover the cost of the fence itself, "if I am to vote 'Yes' on the fence, in my mind ... I am saying 'Yes, the city will go ahead and continue business as usual which is providing those (public safety) services,' Gregory said. "And quite frankly, I don't think we have it in our budget."

The city council approved a 2018 budget with a deficit in December with the hopes that a new state budget this year could reverse some of the costs Illinois lawmakers have pushed onto local governments. Additional fees to Decatur's share of state and local taxes opened a $1.25 million hole in the city's annual balance, according to reports by the city treasurer.

"The city has always supported the Celebration, and until recently, we haven't looked what that meant from a cost standpoint, and right now we have to look at every item now," Moore Wolfe said. "(City Manager Tim Gleason) really did a great job of laying that out." 

Council members indicated varying degrees of communication with Celebration organizers leading up to the fence proposal. They said they hoped to receive details on the nonprofit organization's financials, but as of yet, no city council members say they have gotten those numbers.

"The financials are an issue; the council wants to know and understand where the Celebration is," Moore Wolfe said.

The city has not received a financial report from Celebration organizers nor have they in the past, according to Deputy City Manager Billy Tyus.

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Celebration crowd

A large crowd gathers at the Show Stage on Franklin Street before Nelly's performance on Sunday at Decatur Celebration. Several vendors and Producer Lori Sturgill said Monday that the event, which included an admission charge and fence for the first time this year, was a success. 

"I would think since (the city has helped fund the Celebration) and kind of warned them to kind of get that to us," Councilman Pat McDaniel said. "I'd certainly like to see that before our Tuesday meeting, but I think the public needs to know also. They're a not-for-profit, so they need to be up front, and Celebration has never, ever been up front."

Moore Wolfe said approving the fence does not necessarily mean the city will be on the hook for the $70,000 it spent last year.

"I think that's something we deal with down the road (this year), and we've had some creative ideas that I've heard from council members and city staff, to do this a different way" said Moore Wolfe.

She said options to cut costs could include outsourcing security needs instead of using the Decatur Police Department and crews from the public works department, and moving the event to Progress City USA, which is on the city's east side next to Richland Community College.

Councilman David Horn said he considered the city's security costs separate from the fence vote, but added that "the Celebration (board) should be looking at how it would be able to support itself in the event that the city of Decatur was no longer providing that in kind support."

Council members Bill Faber, Chuck Kuhle and Dana Ray declined to comment until they were more familiar with the material provided to the council.

Decatur Celebration's weekend festival had been a free event since 1986, until organizers started charging for drink tickets, and then a $5 admission in 2017. The changes in cost and the event's quality has been a favorite punching bag for residents over the years, but its popularity has persevered. 

Ahead of last year's council vote, Sturgill said the reasoning for the fence was to more easily enforce the new admission fee, but also cited violence and "major security breaches" at other festivals around the world to up security as well.

"We kind of take it for granted that (staff and volunteers) do a phenomenal job," Moore Wolfe said. "But, phenomenal costs money. We just have to see if there's a way to do it cheaper for the city and for the Celebration."

tlisi@herald-review.com | (217) 421-6949

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Staff Writer

Government-watchdog reporter for the Herald & Review.

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