With $8,000 in the bank and $57,000 more needed before the Saline Celtic Festival can cut its ties with the city, autonomy is still years away.
Member of the Celtic Festival Committee, an official city board responsible for the city-owned festival, and the Friends of the Celtic Festival, a non-profit group formed to help raise funds for the festival and work toward its independence of the city, met for a work session with city council members Monday night.
The work session was called at the request of Council member Jim Roth, who had questions about the Celtic Festival’s financial reporting and concerns about the pace of moving toward independence.
With financial pressures mounting and news out of Lansing suggesting even more bad fiscal news for the city, some city council members are anxious to see the city-owned festival spun off into an independent event, like Summerfest or Oktoberfest.
The hard-working volunteers who put on the two-day party every summer, however, also appear to be tiring of the constant pressure to break free of the city.
Celtic Festival Committee Treasurer Pamela Grosshans has been involved with the festival since it was founded 18 years ago to celebrate Saline’s relationship with its sister city, Brecon, Wales. Grosshans said there were two financial keys to becoming independent. She estimated the festival will need about $15,000 to protect itself from a weather-related wash-out. Additionally, the festival needs about $50,000 for cash flow. Grosshans said the festival’s expenditures come primarily before the festival, while the money doesn’t come in until the day of the festival.
Currently, the Friends of the Celtic Festival has $8,200 in the bank.
“I am 100 percent for what you are doing,” said Council member Jim Roth, who served for years as a festival volunteer. “But I don’t like the city taxpayers taking the risk. I’d like to see the Friends of the Celtic Festival take over as soon as possible and relieve the burden on the taxpayer.”
Council member Dean Girbach asked if it was possible the Friends of the Celtic Festival borrow to help finance the transition.
Grosshans said she doubted that any of the festival’s volunteers would be willing to take on such a liability.
Girbach said the city had recently streamlined its financial staff and that he’d prefer city staff didn’t have to spend time on the Celtic Festival.
“I’d like to see us shift the responsibility to the organization that will be liable for it,” Girbach said.
Grosshans and fellow Festival Committee member Don Makins said it was up to the city to decide what it wanted from its festival and its volunteers.
“We are agents of the city. We don’t do anything without your permission. There are radical things we can do to change the festival,” Makins said. “We’re all volunteers here. We serve at your pleasure. I give up a week’s vacation to work on this. Pam gives up weeks and weeks. If you don’t want (the festival), that’s fine. It’s volunteer stuff. It’s not a job.”
Makins he didn’t see why he and so many others should volunteer thousands of hours to make it happen if council was not happy with the festival.
“I want council to be 100 percent satisfied. If we can’t meet that, I can do something else with my time,” Makins said. “If we can change it, let’s change it. Let’s move together. I don’t want to fight the city. I want to know that if I’m giving up vacation time to help make this happen that it’s appreciated by the city.”
Mayor Gretchen Driskell said that some council members hoped for a quicker transition.
“What we’ve talked about in the past is transition. That’s what we’re trying to figure out. Is it happening? How is it going? A fund balance is accruing, though slower than hoped,” Driskell said. “We do appreciate everything the volunteers have done.”
Council member Marl, who will be Saline’s next Mayor, said he wants to reduce the city’s liability and wants to create parity between the Celtic Festival and other events, like Summerfest. He said he’d like to explore ways to speed up the process of creating an autonomous event.
Council member David Rhoads asked if it was possible to speed up the process with a massive fundraising campaign instead of relying on left-over profits.
“Perhaps if the Friends went all out they could raise $50,000 to $60,000 and we could see the formal split,” Rhoads said.
Council member Jim Peters, a long time Celtic Festival volunteer, said he appreciated the ideas to speed up the timeline, but wasn’t sure they were realistic.
“I’m not so sure we can work any faster unless there are drastic changes. Becoming independent in three years is going to be difficult,” Peters aid. “We don’t have any collateral. We’re working hard as it is right now. It takes an awful lot of work to put on the festival every year.”
City resident Mary Hess, during public comment, said that the economic times may not allow the city to continue offering the festival. She noted that the DPW staff has been reduced to a staff of eight.
“Times change. We used to have the Saline Fair on Henne Field and then it moved on down the road,” Hess said. “The Celtic Festival is wonderful, but when you’re talking about possibly raising taxes, it’s a sting to people.”
Grosshans noted the festival has trimmed costs from over $100,000 to $69,000.
At the same time, the Friends of the Festival has turned the corner on fundraising. Last year, the festival raised more than $17,000.
Gate sales were up by 15 percent and the festival saw 121 more children in attendance this year.
Festival organizers say they made a small profit last year. Council member Roth disputed the profit.
Celtic Festival Committee members and Friends of the Celtic Festival will meet with a small subcommittee that will include a council member and the city treasurer.