BY JEFF CLARK
Tuesday night the Columbus City Council voted 4-2 to award District 5 Supervisor and Juneteenth Festival organizer Leroy Brooks $2,500. The motion was made by Kabir Karriem and seconded by Gene Taylor. Ward 3 Councilman Charlie Box and Ward 6 Councilman Bill Gavin opposed the motion. The money, which will come from the city’s general fund, will be used towards Juneteenth entertainment.
Brooks was added to the council’s agenda late Tuesday afternoon.
“After we didn’t get funding from the (Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau), we were going to cancel Juneteenth,” Brooks said. “But due to the overwhelming call for Juneteenth Festival, we are trying to raise funds. But in order to make this happen, we are coming to you all.”
According to Brooks, the funding request is in compliance with Section 39-15-1 (Authority of municipal and county government to expend general fund monies in support of the arts) of the Mississippi Code. Under the code, “the governing authorities of any municipality or county are hereby authorized and empowered, in their discretion, to expend monies from the municipal or county general fund to match any other funds available for the purpose of supporting the development, promotion and coordination of the arts within such municipality or county.”
Brooks said Juneteenth falls within the amendment and that the organizers of Juneteenth would watch the $2,500.
“I submitted this code to the mayor,” Brooks said. “It says general funds can support the arts. The Juneteenth Festival is an art festival within itself. Art is in the eye of the beholder. We have all kinds of art — the Juneteenth Festival comes closest to the performing arts. I’m asking you all for $2,500 in matching funds. We don’t want to owe people money. Most of our entertainers want 50 percent (of their money) when you sign the contract and 50 percent the day of (the show). All of the entertainers have been gracious and worked with us on their fees.”
Brooks was initially awarded $15,000 by the CVB Board of Directors as a festival grant. However, Brooks declined the money, stating he had problems with the CVB board’s guidelines for festival grant funding. Brooks also applied for a quality of life grant for $8,000 for Juneteenth, but the board denied the request during its March meeting. The paperwork submitted by Brooks for the quality of life grant, which can be funded up to $8,000 and used entirely for entertainment, showed the festival having a net loss of $9,900. The board removed another request to fund the event from its April agenda.
The money used to fund the CVB and any projects it may fund comes from a restaurant tax placed on eateries that do $350,000 or more in annual sales.
“You rejected a grant from the CVB for $15,000 for this very purpose,” Gavin said. “Now, you are asking the citizens of Columbus to put in taxpayer dollars. I’m sorry, but since you turned down that grant, I don’t see putting any taxpayer dollars in this.”
Brooks said he had a conversation with Gavin on the CVB and that Gavin, too, had issues with the organization.
“Mr. Gavin, we had a conversation out on the golf course and I tried to explain to you then and I want to explain this to you in public,” Brooks said. “The guidelines that the CVB has put in place only allows 25 percent of the $15,000 to be used for entertainment. Most of these festivals we have are entertainment-oriented. I respect your opinion, but this $2,500 I’m asking for is taxpayer money so is the CVB money. I don’t want to be criticized for not taking the money after you articulated to me the problems you have with the CVB just like a lot of other people.”
Box was also critical of Brook’s funding request.
“We’ve already budgeted for our year — as a supervisor you know how the budget works,” Box said. “I just don’t see how we can justify doing this for festivals that go before the CVB for funding.”
Gavin echoed Box’s statements.
“My question is where does this end,” Gavin asked. “Who’s next? Who is the next person that is going to be up here asking for money?”
Before making the motion to fund the $2,500, Karriem said festivals such as Juneteenth bring revenue to the city.
“When we have events like this and a couple of others, we see increases in gas purchased and hotel stays and a spike in sales in across the city,” Karriem said. “I think it’s something we should look at if it’s good for the city.”
After Turnage said it is at the city’s discretion to decide what is considered art, Mayor Robert Smith made his pitch to support Brooks’ request.
“This festival has music — isn’t music a form of art?” Smith asked.
The council also approved a temporary beer permit for the Juneteenth Festival.
In other council actions:
• The Municipal Court division was recognized with a plaque from the mayor and council.
• Angela Nash discussed Another Generation, a local youth organization.
• A request to hire two public works department laborers was approved.
• Nine firefighters were promoted to the position of Engineer.
• Approval was given to Columbus Fire and Rescue’s 2013-2018 Strategic Plan.
• Approval was given to abandon an unopened portion of Fifth Avenue North from the city’s map.
• Approval was given to make the 2013 COLA payment.