Commissioners and leaders of the Wendell Chamber of Commerce are taking issue with a statement made by Mayor Tim Hinnant at the close of last week’s town board meeting.
In response to a comment by Commissioner Sam Laughery that the town should consider additional funding for the chamber to put on the Harvest Festival, Hinnant said commissioners could put the issue on a future agenda, but he objected to providing any new funding. “What we have is a group that was mismanaging their money. We don’t reward people for mismanaging their money by giving them more money,” Hinnant said.
Commissioners didn’t get a chance to comment on Hinnant’s remarks at the meeting, because he immediately gaveled the board out of session.
After the meeting, Hinnant said the chamber had improperly mixed funds from the Farmer’s Market with personal funds from the market manager. “They took a loss on that and didn’t pursue it any further,” Hinnant said.
Chamber of Commerce president-elect Tracie Hicks disagreed with Hinnant’s assessment in an interview Tuesday. She said all the farmer’s market funds had been accounted for.
“What happened was we had a grant to help us run the farmer’s market. In the first year of the grant (market manager) Brandy (Hunter) had simply put the money in a personal account because the market didn’t have its own account. When we realized it, we established an account for the market. All the money was accounted for and there wasn’t an issue,” Hicks said.
That grant, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has since expired and Hunter’s position at the market ended with the grant. The market is now operated by an independent group, made up primarily of the farmers who sell at the market. The chamber continues to provide some support for the market, but Hicks said the chamber is no longer involved in direct management.
When he brought the matter of chamber funding up during Monday night’s meeting, Laughery voiced support for the chamber’s efforts. “I think last year’s festival was one of the best ones we’ve ever had and we rewarded that by cutting their funding by 25 percent,” Laughery said.
The cut was actually 50 percent, though. Commissioners made a budget amendment in 2014 to provide $4,000 to pay for a Saturday night concert by the Band of Oz. Prior to that allocation, the town had not provided any funding to the chamber in the town’s annual budget.
When commissioners debated the current budget, they agreed to provide just $2,000 for the chamber. That money was not directed for a specific use, but Laughery said it was generally assumed that money would be spent on Harvest Festival expenses. Hicks said that is what the chamber is doing with the town’s money.
Caught off guard
Other commissioners seemed unaware that the farmer’s market was the reason for Hinnant’s comment.
Commissioner Ginna Gray said there had been some discussion among board members about the chamber’s decision to use money from a tip jar at the Harvest Festival bar to fund a celebratory event for Harvest Festival organizers and volunteers.
Gray said that decision was not a concern for her. “That was their money and I feel like they should be able to spend it how they see fit,” Gray said. She said she had pushed for greater funding for the festival during the budget season. “I was fighting for that, but I didn’t win that vote,” Gray said.
Commissioner James Parham said Tuesday he was unsure what prompted Hinnant’s remarks.
“I asked him after the meeting what he was talking about and he really didn’t get into it,” Parham said. Like Gray, Parham said he would support Laughery’s proposal to increase funding for the chamber’s event.
Gray and Parham are vying to replace Hinnant as mayor in elections this fall. Hinnant is not seeking another term.
Hicks said the celebration – a dinner for 10 people at the Angus Barn in Raleigh – was an effort by the Harvest Festival committee to recognize the effort of volunteers in a more meaningful way. “We all have plaques all over the place. They sit there and collect dust. We felt like something like this might be more appreciated by those who worked so hard to put on the festival,” Hicks said.
She also said no town money and no money from festival sponsors or vendors was used to pay for the meal. She said a chamber board member agreed to cover the cost of the meal that was not covered by the $371 in the tip jar. Chamber president Stacy Bradfield told commissioners in June that the bill for the meal totaled $740.
Laughery and Hicks both say they don’t want Hinnant’s remarks to upset the delicate relationship between the town board and the chamber of commerce.
Laughery said he attended a Harvest Festival committee meeting Wednesday morning to express the town’s support for what the group is doing. “I let them know that at least some board members support them,” Laughery said. “I don’t want this to upset what we’ve been doing for the last three or four years to build a strong relationship with the chamber.”
Hicks said the chamber is ready to move on.
“We will continue to keep on doing what we’re doing. Tim has said his piece and that’s fine. We’ve tried to explain what’s going on. We have support from the commissioners and we will stay focused on what we’re doing,” Hicks said.