Festival costs magically appear on Bellevue Borough bill list

More than $9,000 in costs associated with the recent “WizardVue” festival in Bellevue appeared without warning -- or prior approval by Bellevue Council -- on the borough’s bill list last Tuesday. Although council questioned the expenditures, it also approved their payment.

WizardVue was a day-long festival for Harry Potter enthusiasts that shut down the town between Florence and Fremont avenues on Aug. 11. Mayor Emily Marburger led the planning for the event, which was tagged as a fund-raiser for the Friends of Bayne Library, a nonprofit group that supports the borough’s library in Bayne Park.

Although Bellevue Council gave the group permission to hold the event, it never authorized the expenditure of any tax dollars.

The bill list presented for approval by council last Tuesday evening, however, listed a number of festival-related invoices for payments.

The lion’s share of the expenses --$8,548.27 -- covered the hiring of officers from outside law enforcement agencies, the result of a gross miscalculation in how popular the event would be. Marburger said that she called on the borough’s emergency management team to develop a plan for emergency response during a borough-wide event. Initially, she said, the team was looking at bringing in five Allegheny County deputy sheriffs for crowd control. When Police Chief Matt Sentner contacted the sheriff’s office, however, he was told to contact the Pennsylvania State Police to better estimate the number of officers that would be needed, according to Marburger.

Both Sentner and Marburger say that the State Police told them that a Harry Potter Festival in nearby Volant had drawn a crowd of 10,000 people, and that Bellevue should plan on having one officer per 250 attendees.

In fact, the two-day festival in Volant, held two weeks before WizardVue, drew only 2,500, according to Volant planners. This was the second year for Volant’s festival, which planners say drew 5,000 the first year.

Marburger said that the ultimate decision to bring in some two dozen outside law enforcement officers was made only days prior to the event. The “lack of time,” she said, was probably why council was never informed or asked to approve the projected expenditure.

The mayor also said that she believed the funds for the officers could come from the emergency management budget. However, the total emergency management budget for 2018 is $8,000, with $1,000 of that designated for National Night Out.

It is unlikely that the festival committee or the Friends of Bayne Library will be able to cover the full costs of the festival. Marburger said that they received about $17,000 in business sponsorships, vendor fees, and the sale of admission wristbands and other items. Not all revenue has been received, she said.

About $11,000 was spent prior to the event, Marburger said, for porta-johns, banners and other promotional materials including t-shirts, tote bags, buttons, and decorations.

Outstanding bills also have yet to be paid, Marburger said, including one for janitorial services at Bellevue Elementary and another for school bus transportation between Northgate High School and Lincoln Avenue. The bus availability was not advertised, however, and, according to Marburger, only one person used the bus to travel one-way to the festival.

Among the bills paid by Bellevue Council on Tuesday were golf cart rental for $350, lunch and cold drinks for first responders totaling $167.02, cable ties for $8.99 and a foam cooler for $6.49.

Of the police-related bills approved for payment, $6,118.06 went to Allegheny County, $2,077.11 to Avalon, and $353.10 to Edgeworth Borough. A bill from Sewickley Borough remains outstanding.

Bellevue Director of Administrative Services said that the borough has received no funds related to the event. Library director Ellen Goodman said that the finances were run through the Friends of Bayne Library’s private account. The Friends did not respond to a message for comment on the matter.

Council member Grant Saylor, who chairs council’s public safety committee, questioned the invoices, and said that while the event was great, council should have advance notice of these types of expenditures.

“How is it that we weren’t required to vote on this?," asked council member Anthony DiTullio, to which council president Tom Fodi responded, “That’s a very meaningful question.”

Bellevue’s home rule charter requires expenditures to be approved by council. In an emergency, council can be polled and then vote later to ratify the expenditure.

Council member Val Pennington said that the bills should not be viewed as providing a “private security detail for WizardVue,” but rather as a “necessary evil” the borough “willingly” assumed in order to protect its residents.

Council member Linda Woshner pointed out the difference in how council addressed funding for the 150th anniversary celebration last year, which was a borough event, and the expenses for WizardVue, which was the project of a private nonprofit group. The 150th committee received resistance from some council members when it requested the borough advance $10,000 for the year-long celebration, all the while having a plan in place to repay those funds. The committee, in fact, did cover all of the celebration’s costs, according to council member and 150th chair Tom Hrynda.

“If this would have been the 150th, we would have been crucified,” Woshner said. She also said that the planners should have consulted with people experienced in planning large events in Bellevue in order to get more realistic attendance and cost estimates.”

The vote to pay the bills was 7-0-2, with Fodi and Hrynda abstaining because they both received tax refunds due to reassessment, and those refunds were included on the bill list.