A new member of the Pine Bluff Advertising and Promotion Commission on Monday called for greater transparency in the commission’s relationship with the non-profit Pine Bluff Festival Association. The festival association puts on annual events such as The Enchanted Land of Legends and Lights at Pine Bluff Regional Park during the holidays. For roughly two decades the festival director’s salary has been paid from tax revenues controlled by the A&P Commission.
In a meeting of the commission’s finance committee Monday, commissioner William Moss said that spending public tax dollars to fund a private non-profit appears to violate state law. Moss, an accountant, was appointed in June to the at-large commission seat formally occupied by Alderman Win Trafford.
Moss also criticized the commission’s practice of spending money and devoting man hours to electrical maintenance in the park during the Christmas lights festival, which runs from mid-November to the end of December. Interim Convention Center Director Sheri Storie estimated that extensive flooding in the last two years led to 1,200 hours spent by convention center employees to replace and maintain electrical outlet boxes during the festival.
The festival association typically reimburses the City of Pine Bluff for the cost of any electrical outlet boxes that were replaced. Storie did not believe the reimbursement included man hours. Moss said that arrangement, as well as the absence of “related party” disclosures by former festival association director Greg Gustek or former convention center director Bob Purvis on a recent audit, could lead to public mistrust. Gustek was replaced by Kerry Battle in the fall of 2016, and a search to replace Purvis remains ongoing.
“What you just described was spending A&P funds on city property, which is against the statute,” Moss said. “Whether you want to call it a loan or not, it’s a loan. State statute says you cannot loan public monies to a private organization.”
After receiving public funding at its birth, the festival association was supposed to sever ties and stop receiving public funding, Moss said.
“These are not investigations, but concerns of mine that I’ve been looking at,” Moss said.
Moss said he would like to see clear language written into bylaws of the A&P Commission regarding how it spends money. He recommended against issuing cash payments, which the commission apparently did once last year. And he wanted to stop the practice of keeping the record keeping of the A&P Commission and the Convention and Auditorium Complex Commission together.
Storie said she believed a decision was made in 1995 to keep track of the finances together for purposes of efficiency, since the executive director of the convention center reported to both commissions. However, Story said she could not confirm that because she has not been able to locate the committees’ meeting minutes from 1995.