City spending on volunteer event draws fire
Tab for Volunteer Appreciation Dinner at Boathouse more than $10,000
HOPEWELL — Some residents have criticized the city government for spending more than $10,000 for an event at the upscale Boathouse restaurant honoring volunteers for their service to the community.
The Oct. 18 Volunteer Appreciation Dinner cost a total of $10,473, almost 50 percent over the expected cost of $7,000. The additional funding was not allocated by City Council, but came out of leftover funds from the city clerk’s budget.
Some residents and councilors questioned the spending, agreeing with the idea of showing appreciation to Hopewell’s many volunteers but disturbed because it cost so much at a time when the city has been struggling to pay its bills.
Mayor Jackie M. Shornak said she and other councilors were not kept informed about the planning. “From the moment I received an invitation to the moment I stepped into the Boathouse room, I was taken aback by the misuse and excessive use of taxpayers’ dollars,” she said. “I do appreciate and am thankful for our boards and commissions, but even some (of them) made comments to me that taxpayers were not going to be happy about the decisions made.”
One of those taxpayers, Steve Romano, raised the issue at a recent council meeting.
“Somehow you found that money, which I think was a total disgrace as far as the citizens of Hopewell are concerned,” Romano said. “There’s been a lot of talk around town about it. I know a lot of people are complaining about it, I think everybody who went to that dinner owes the citizens of this town an apology because not many people who live in this town can afford to go to the Boathouse.
“I’m sure you’ve enjoyed the meal,” he added. “It must have been one heck of a meal, but it was on our nickel.”
According to multiple
Freedom of Information Act requests submitted to the city by local media and by Shornak, the breakdown of the tab was $10,473 for menu and space at The Boathouse; $3,200 for portfolio and pen sets given to the volunteers as gifts; $1,445 for bottles; and slightly more than $76 for gift bags from Amazon.com. The total cost amounted to $48 per guest.
The records show that past dinners cost much less. A 2009 dinner held at the Sunlight Elks Lodge cost $14 without china and $15.50 with china per person, and a cash bar at no cost to the city. Dinners held between 1999 and 2003 had a total cost between $1,000 and $3,000.
This year's was the first volunteer dinner hosted by the city since 2013.
The planning committee consisted of City Manager John M. Altman Jr., Assistant City Manager Charles Dane, Vice Mayor Jasmine E. Gore, Councilor Janice Denton, City Clerk Ronnieye Arrington and Assistant City Clerk Frazelle Hampton.
Dane said he was only partially involved in the planning. He acknowledged that the dinner could have been done much cheaper elsewhere, but with the large number of people expected to attend, a larger venue and additional details were needed.
Dane said he was asked “to call The Boathouse and see if I could get a better price per person. I didn’t do a lot of the planning or anything, but I can say the price per person dropped significantly.
“Yes, it’s expensive to do a benefit like that no matter where you hold it. I think the price was reasonable for the number of people that were involved.”
Denton said she had no idea that the dinner would turn out as expensive as it did. She said she and others had discussed the idea of cooking the dinner themselves and having the city only pay for the meals, but that never materialized. She also said there was never an occasion when the committee sat down together to discuss the agenda, adding that the details were done through general consensus.
If the costs were going to surpass the anticipated allotment, Denton said, the committee should have come back to council to ask for more money.
“I think sometimes we lacked communication as a group because we never really sat down and had a meeting to make some decisions,” Denton said, adding that she was “100 percent against” having the dinner at The Boathouse.
Other members of council said they were unaware of concerns over the dinner until after it happened.
Councilor Anthony J. Zevgolis said he had no involvement with the dinner preparation but supports appreciating the service of the city’s volunteers and still supports the dinner.
“I have not received any comments from anyone in regards to this dinner being held,” he said.
Councilor Christina J. Luman-Bailey, who was mayor of Hopewell the last time a volunteer dinner was held, said she did not recall the budget of previous dinners, but she said all of council attended because they all wanted to thank the volunteers.
Arrington said the dinner was authorized by council, but no one on council contacted her to ask about the details.
“At no point did any councilor say, ‘You know what, Ronnieye? You’re spending more money than we want,’” Arrington said. “Nobody asked me.”
Arrington said this year’s dinner costs ran higher “because we knew we were using salary savings. Had the event been budgeted, we would have operated within those confines.”
Councilor Brenda Pelham said she was aware of community disapproval over the dinner, but she believes the sentiment for the volunteers is a great token of appreciation, and the committee “did an awesome job in preparing it.” The disapproval hasn’t changed her mind.
“When you look at the individual cost per volunteer, you will find that it is a minimal amount paid for the hours of sacrifice in serving the city, the time spent away from family, and the use of each member’s automobile,” Pelham said.
“This equates to a simple thanks or thank-you for your service. We have not recognized these volunteers in five or more years. Therefore, the annual amount would be very much equivalent to the norm that we spent in the past.”
Arrington said the message of the dinner is where people should be focused. “I’m sorry this happened, and I hope people will remember what the intent was and not get hung up on how it ended,” she said.
Lyndon German is a staff writer for the Hopewell Herald and Prince George Post.