First Night dispute lingers; Organizers, city agree event is beneficial, disagree on payment

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A New Year's Eve celebration for thousands of revelers to usher in the year 2000 in Annapolis has become the unlikely catalyst for a bitter dispute that has split city officials and the nonprofit group that organizes the event.

On one side is First Night Annapolis, organizers of a family-oriented, alcohol-free New Year's Eve event, which announced last week that it would hold this year's celebration for the first time in a decade without using city-owned premises, such as the dock area, because it cannot afford the cost of services such as trash removal and newly imposed rent.

On the other side are city officials livid at being portrayed as the Grinch who stole New Year's Eve, arguing that they have financially supported First Night since it began and, in fact, offered to help reduce the new rental and service charges.

As a fresh round of negotiations begins to craft a lease for city services to be rendered on a highly anticipated New Year's Eve, Annapolis officials are grimly aware that the city's image is at stake in their latest attempt to balance funding community events with watching how taxpayer dollars are spent.

"My background before politics was in community arts," said Mayor Dean L. Johnson, who is a past board president of the Annapolis Opera. "When you look at what makes Annapolis great, the arts and community spirit are right up there. To be on this side is not where I want to be."

Janice Gary, First Night executive director, said her organization is moving ahead with planning the event, relocating performances that would have been at City Hall and the dock area to facilities at the Naval Academy and county government buildings.

"The city is, at this point, the only nonsupporter of this event in Annapolis," Gary said. "We offer a very valuable service to this community, and the citizens of this community deserve to have First Night."

At the heart of this dispute is a law passed in February to reduce taxpayer-subsidization of celebrations such as First Night by charging for city facilities and services used during the hundreds of events that take place in the state capital every year.

With Annapolis a popular locale for parades, block parties and races, Alderman Herbert H. McMillan, who crafted the ordinance, wanted the city to have power to review all events that would cost the city more than $300 in police overtime or trash removal service.

McMillan, a Ward 5 Republican, pitched the ordinance in December after he discovered the 1997 First Night had stuck Annapolis with a bill of thousands of dollars in police overtime. Annapolis spokesman Thomas W. Roskelly said First Night paid only about $800 for cleanup of the event, which features performances by more than 200 music and dance troupes in almost 50 venues in the state capital.

"The city wants to assist the First Night organization," McMillan said. "But we're not going to be trampled on by them either."

First Night organizers began negotiating in May how much they would have to pay to use City Hall and the dock area, which they have used since the first event nine years ago.

Mayor Johnson said he had hoped the lease with First Night would allow the organizers to pay less than the full price for city facilities and services. The lease that City Attorney Paul G. Goetzke drew up last month proposed charging First Night the lesser of $35,000 or 100 percent of police overtime pay, 50 percent of all other city costs incurred during the event and $1,500 for use of city premises.

But before the city council could vote on the lease, First Night withdrew its application last Monday, saying it could not afford the terms of the agreement.

Last year, Annapolis paid $15,233 in overtime for police officers, firefighters and public works and transportation employees assigned to First Night. The city billed the group only $4,184 for overtime for police officers hired from other departments and about $1,000 for cleanup costs.

First Night officials argue the city should financially support their event because it has significant economic impact. Gary said neighboring municipalities offer substantial support. Montgomery County, Gary said, provides $50,000 for programming and $200,000 in city services, staffing and year-round administrative help.

She said a study of Annapolis' event showed that the estimated 12,000 who attended last year's New Year's Eve celebration spent more than $1 million in the state capital in one night.

"It has a definite positive impact on revenue," Gary said.

Roskelly emphasized that city officials are not disputing the value of First Night. The city spokesman said he helped plan the first event. He said the nonprofit group's initial agreement with the city stipulated that Annapolis government would fund the first event but that it would be self-sufficient within four years.

Mayor Alfred A. Hopkins -- who held office for eight years before Johnson was elected in 1997 -- decided to waive charges to First Night. Hopkins sanctioned the event by issuing a proclamation before he stepped down in 1997, saying the group's event would be the city's official millennium celebration.

"We did do some proclamation saying it's the celebration of the millennium, but what does that mean when a subsequent city council passes a law saying, 'Thou shalt pay for city services,' " Roskelly asked. "It doesn't say in there, 'Oh, by the way, the city will pick up all costs regardless of future legislation.' "

Hopkins, who is on the First Night board of directors, said he is dismayed by the recent dispute.

"I don't think they should be charged," he said. "It's good for the city. I don't think there are many people who don't fall in love with this town the first time they come here and it blossoms into a perpetual romance. This is a great place to visit and they will spend money here."

Roskelly said he has gotten numerous calls from Annapolitans who support either First Night or the city since the nonprofit withdrew its lease agreement. He said the city wants the lease to be resolved as much as First Night does.

"A lease is not a one-sided thing," Roskelly said. "It seems to me like the city is following its own law, but we're running into people saying, 'I don't like the law and I'm not paying for it.' I wish I could do that with the federal government, frankly speaking. I have this little problem with the 15th of April."

Pub Date: 10/03/99

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