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Two sides resolute on gala deficit

St. Pete Beach officials want a community organization to pay $7,389.35 toward the city New Year's Eve party.

By AMY WIMMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 4, 2001


ST. PETE BEACH -- They wined, dined and toasted in the new year.

But when the party was over, the city estimates it had lost $7,389.35 on the 2001 New Year's Eve Gala at the Tradewinds Sirata Beach Resort.

Now city officials want a community organization to pay them back.

"Clearly, the taxpayers of St. Pete Beach should not be held accountable for this loss," City Manager Carl Schwing wrote in a letter to the head of the Council of Presidents, composed of neighborhood and business associations citywide.

The debate about who should pay for the party has turned into a squabble over who did and didn't meet obligations. Schwing says organizers didn't sell enough tickets. Organizers say Schwing led them to believe that, because of the way the Sirata billed for the event, selling too many tickets could actually work against the city.

They also believe Schwing signed a contract for the event that he shouldn't have.

"We all worked hard on it," said Jack Ohlhaber, who heads the Council of Presidents and thinks the city has overestimated how much money it lost. "Some public functions work out; some don't."

The second annual St. Pete Beach New Year's Eve Gala was the brainchild of the council, which approached the city with the idea early last year. The council hoped to make the second New Year's Eve party as successful as the previous year's.

At the first one, 300 St. Pete Beach residents celebrated the new millennium. The council raised about $2,000 at the event and donated the money to the city's Parks and Recreation Department, Ohlhaber said.

Only 130 people showed up at the recent version. The $80 ticket price kept away many people.

The unanticipated economic downturn also led businesses that had promised money to back out of the event altogether, Schwing and Ohlhaber agreed.

They disagree, however, on whether those sponsorships would have been enough to cover the city's loss.

Says Schwing: "It wouldn't have covered the lack of ticket sales. If the tickets would've been sold, then the event would have broken even or even been in the black."

Says Ohlhaber: "Carl didn't get the sponsors he thought he would, and even the ones he thought he had in the bag turned out to renege later."

Schwing's perspective on what went wrong with the New Year's Eve Gala is outlined in his letter to Ohlhaber, which asks how the Council of Presidents plans to reimburse the city. He said he wanted the council to pay back St. Pete Beach before Sept. 30 -- the end of the city's fiscal year.

"We don't want the taxpayers to pay for their private property," said Mayor Ward Friszolowski, who points out that from the inception of party planning, city officials wanted to limit the participation of the city staff. "That's really kind of the basis of where the city stands, and that was the issue right from the beginning. The city never agreed to put in money to help for the Presidents' Council party."

Schwing says the city agreed to obtain corporate sponsorships to cover the $13 gap between the price per ticket and the charge by the Sirata. That amount totaled $2,600, Schwing said.

Sponsorships, solicited by both the city and the party organizers from the Council of Presidents, totaled $6,300 -- more than twice the amount the city promised, Schwing points out.

The council had to sell 200 tickets to cover the costs of the event. Members sold 131, and possibly more because they believe some people bought tickets but didn't attend the event.

Ohlhaber says there's a reason they didn't sell more.

"The fact is, we were led to believe that we had enough donations that it actually would work against us to sell more tickets," he said.

Schwing called that explanation "ridiculous."

"I was actually encouraging and urging and pleading . . . that we needed to sell the tickets," he said.

Ohlhaber called the dispute "silly." He also said he was disappointed that elected officials and city staffers didn't personally support the community event, pointing out that City Commissioner Jim Myers, who attended with his wife, was the only city official at the party.

Their lack of attendance makes Ohlhaber question how much the city supported a group that has donated its events' proceeds to St. Pete Beach.

"What about all the other city affairs where they kept the money? Should we split it?" Ohlhaber said. "I see this as venting."

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