The Derryfest Committee announced last weekend that this year’s town fair will be postponed until 2016.
While the ripples from a Town Council budget cut have spread to the popular Derry institution, one Town Councilor suggested in response that the cancellation could lead to an investigation of Derryfest’s relationship to the town and where the Derryfest money goes.
Derryfest Committee chair Michael Gendron said Derryfest is produced by a handful of volunteers who work for months securing and coordinating booth vendors, entertainment, transportation services, police details, sponsors, publicity, electricity, painting and striping of MacGregor Park, parking and general management of the event.
He noted that the production of Derryfest is significantly dependent upon the Derry Parks and Recreation Department and the services that it provides to the committee each year, and said that in a recent letter to the committee, Parks and Recreation said it cannot provide those services this year due to drastic cuts made to their department’s budget.
The duties that Parks and Recreation performs in preparation for Derryfest are beyond the capabilities of a small committee, Gendron said, adding that the Derryfest Committee prides itself on producing a safe, well-run event each year and concluded that it could not accomplish the additional duties effectively under the new circumstances.
Derry Parks and Recreation Director Eric Bodenrader based his decision on a Town Council budget vote May 19 that cut overtime for his two divisions. The vote cut $7,467 from the Recreation overtime line, reducing it to $2,500, and $6,389 from the Parks overtime line, reducing it to $5,000.
Bodenrader said in a phone interview Monday, “Unfortunately, it is a no-win situation. With the budget cuts for 2016, we knew that we would not be able to support Derryfest in the same capacity.”
For the day of Derryfest, Bodenrader budgets 45 hours for four full-time employees at a cost of $1,300 to $1,500. But that amount also includes several weeks of preparation work to get MacGregor Park ready, he said.
Bodenrader said he and Gendron began talking this past December, when early warning signs pointed to cuts in the budget. “When the first scenarios came out, no one knew what it was going to mean,” he said, referring to Town Administrator Galen Stearns’ initial efforts to cut first $2.50 and then $2 from the tax rate. Stearns ended up proposing a budget that would cut $1 from the tax rate, but the majority of the Council went with different cuts for a $1.21 savings.
“Unfortunately, we had to make some priority choices,” Bodenrader said.
Bodenrader said it was a tough choice, but he balanced Derryfest against such other programs as senior citizen luncheons.
Gendron said Sunday that it was a “distressing decision” to cancel Derryfest. But due to retirements, his core committee is down to six “dedicated individuals” for whom “the services Parks and Rec provides in advance of Derryfest are significant and beyond the capabilities of our small committee.”
Gendron said he hoped the festival would return in 2016. Asked if enough volunteers could make that happen, he said, “My concern is that the many duties provided by Parks and Rec involve town properties and town equipment. To ask an outside organization to step in would risk a great deal of liability.”
Mark Beland, a member of Gendron’s committee, said it’s a “daunting task” to put on the festival. He said he didn’t realize how much work was done behind the scenes by Bodenrader’s crews.
“I hope we can regroup, figure out how to handle this and be up and running next year,” Beland said.
Losing the fair for one year will also affect the income of local nonprofits, according to Derry Police Capt. Vern Thomas, who works with a Boy Scout troop and a Cub Scout troop. The troops have two booths at the festival that provide one-third of their annual income, Thomas said.
Beland said the committee acted quickly in order to inform outside vendors, who are already making plans for their fall fairs. “We didn’t want to inform them in August,” Beland said.
Among the services that had been provided by Parks and Recreation are insurance coverage; arrangement for chemical toilets; having three or four employees work the event; securing two police detail officers with cruiser; purchasing such items as hand sanitizer and paper towels and trash bags; touching up bandstand paint; mowing and trimming MacGregor Park; putting out hay, cornstalks, pumpkins and flowers; transporting staging and supplies, setting up tents and chairs, decorating the bandstand, and putting out parking signs.
As a result, the committee voted unanimously to postpone the event until next year. Anyone who has sent in a deposit will have it returned immediately.
Though he has kept informed about the other cuts directed by himself and three other Councilors, Councilor Mark Osborne said in a phone interview Monday that the Derryfest cancellation was a “complete surprise” and a mystery to him.
For one thing, Osborne said, “I’ve heard for years and years that it was a privately-funded festival and that the operating budget came from booth fees and donors.” He said he didn’t know that, with the Parks and Rec component, the town was “subsidizing” the festival.
“If the town is sponsoring it, I want to see where the booth fees are going,” Osborne said. “We’ve heard a lot about transparency this spring, and it’s time for Derryfest to come clean and open the books.”
Osborne also speculated that cancelling Derryfest was a “political ploy.” While he was aware of and voted for cuts to police and fire personnel and for the closure of a fire station, he pointed out that “I was not aware of any money for Derryfest in the town budget. Derryfest is not held at a fire station. What line item are they referring to?”
Osborne said it was still possible for Derryfest to go on. “Are there are no volunteers? Are there no business owners willing to sponsor this? People can’t improvise?” he asked.
In Osborne’s opinion, the cancellation is a “political stunt” by an active and vocal minority, in order to incite the community.
According to Osborne, “They are holding Derryfest hostage.”
The Derryfest committee hopes to identify a source for services no longer provided by Parks and Recreation for next year. Those wanting to volunteer for the 2016 Derryfest may email the committee at [email protected]. More information is available at www.derryfest.org.
Derry’s Got Talent will still take place on Friday, Sept. 18, at the Derry Opera House. Auditions will be announced at www.derryoperahouse.com.
Contact Michael Gendron at mich[email protected] or 494-1113 with postponement questions.