Policing costs crippling Festival of Friends, organizer says

The cost of hiring police officers is crippling the Festival of Friends, says the event's general manager. Council has approved a motion to delve further into the issue.

The cost of hiring police officers is crippling the Festival of Friends, says the event's general manager.

"A $40,000 increase in policing is about 10 per cent of our cash operations," Loren Lieberman told CBC Hamilton.

And that increase is what his organization is facing after the 2012 season, he says. 

'It just doesn't make sense. It's a 700 per cent increase in the contracted position from the cops.'—Loren Lieberman Festival of Friends

To that end, Lieberman is asking the police bill to be transferred to the city so the festival can remain viable. The police contract would then be "assigned to the appropriate department within the city of Hamilton."

"It just doesn't make sense," Lieberman said. "It's a 700 per cent increase in the contracted position from the cops." [See a graph outlining the festival's police expenditures from the last nine months as provided by Lieberman here.]

"Now, we have no issues with the police beyond the financial liability," Lieberman said. "It's just too small an organization, and we don't have any fat to cut."

Washed out

The Festival of Friends has had to deal with some deep-seated financial stresses in 2012. According to an independent auditor's report of its finances, the festival was almost $81,000 in the hole last year.

Torrential rains also put a damper on the festivities at the Ancaster fairgrounds this summer, keeping much of the crowd away.

"Overall, it was among the worst years we've ever had," Lieberman said. "We've never had such constant, reoccurring rain."

But there are few places left for the free festival to trim the fat, he says. "I can't pay less in rent when we've closed the office, and I can't pay less in salaries when there's nobody getting paid.

"So if we have anywhere to cut cash from, it's the performer budget," he said. "And if we cut the performer budget, what do I need more police for?"

Lieberman is also frustrated that there's no mechanism in place by which his organization can work things out with the police, he says.

"They said to deal with the city," Lieberman said. "So here I am."

Police spokesperson Catherine Martin told CBC Hamilton Friday afternoon that she couldn't yet speak on the issue, as it hadn't yet been brought to the police's attention as a formal request.

"I suspect we will receive information from council at a later date," Martin said.

A widespread problem?

Some Hamilton councillors are worried the problems brought to council Friday don't begin and end with the Festival of Friends. Both Coun. Lloyd Ferguson and Coun. Judi Partridge voiced concerns from other organizations they'd heard from in regards to the price of police at events.

"I do see some trends here," Ferguson told CBC Hamilton. "We need to follow up on this and hear from the police as to what's going on."

To that end, Ferguson tabled a motion to council that groups continue interm payments with policing costs for now, but for the issue to be moved to the grants committee so a "citywide resolution" can be found.

Partridge seconded the motion. "Policing costs are crippling these agencies."

Invariably, the idea of charging an admission fee for the festival reared its head - but Lieberman summarily shot it down.

"The clearest covenant we have with the city of Hamilton is … you, the city, give us money to entertain Hamiltonians for free," he said.

"We could make more money — but then we wouldn't be the Festival of Friends."

The Gage Park move

The festival's move from Gage park to the Ancaster Fairgrounds has long been a sore spot for many Hamiltonians — but Lieberman says it actually makes things better, from a policing perspective.

"We're a much more contained, easier to police event than we ever were in Gage Park," he said, adding that police did have some concerns in years past that audiences couldn't be contained after Gage Park shows.

"Now they're not stomping on Mrs. Johnson's lilies anymore - they're taking the bus or walking through fields," he said.

Lieberman did offer one tongue in cheek solution to bringing out crowds to the festival no matter the weather. "Mean, dirty rock and roll fans" would be more inclined to party in the rain and tough out the mud, he says.

"But I can't just book mud music."