City Council Recap: budget debate centers on Fridays at Sunset

Last night, Richmond City Council passed a $709.9M operating budget for the 2011-2012 fiscal year despite dozens of residents showing up to protest cuts to Fridays at Sunset.

Last night, Richmond City Council passed a $709.9M operating budget for the 2011-2012 fiscal year despite dozens of residents showing up to protest cuts to a popular concert series.

Before the meeting got into the grit of the public comment period, Mayor Dwight C. Jones assured the audience that City Council is looking out for the best interests of Richmond residents.

“I think it’s important for us to herald tonight that we did not raise taxes again for the third year in a row,” Jones said. “I think it is also important to understand that our employees have not had a raise for the last three years so we’ve tried to acknowledge that in this budget.”

The focus of the debate over the budget centered on one paper: it called for $75,000 to be stripped from the Fridays at Sunset event, a concert series spanning over 13 weeks in the spring and summer.

Residents cited the series as a recruiting tool for companies including Verizon and Dominion. They said it pulls people into Richmond from the counties, Maryland, North Carolina, and D.C. Plus, it regularly boasts attendance numbers of 1,500 – 3,000 without ever having an arrest.

Adele Johnson has been attending the event for over 15 years and said the event has been a boost to Richmond’s reputation.

“I attend a lot of outdoor events, and I would say this is the best in the region. Besides having a variety of local and nationally known artists in a great setting, it offers economic and social enhancements to the city,” she said.

Johnson said she, like many other attendees, pays to put her car in a parking deck and spends money at local businesses as part of her and her husband’s Friday night out.

“I remember years ago that national jazz artists would pass by Richmond; they would go to Tidewater and they would go to D.C. But, because of Fridays at Sunset we now have national artists who want to come here,” she said. “These are artists I have and would again travel to see and spend money in another city.”

King Salim Khalfani of the NAACP supported reinstating the $125,000 in city dollars which have been given to the event in previous years. He said whenever the line up for Friday at Sunset’s season is announced, he is bombarded with phone calls from out-of-town friends and relatives who want to come to Richmond. Khalfani described the reduction in funds as “unfathomable.”

“This series of concerts have become a cultural expectation. It would be a tragedy of great order to knock the funding down as has been done.”

One speaker said Philly, D.C., and Camden are courting the event. Alex Scott, a full time stand-up comic who has been employed by Fridays at Sunset for the past two years, said he knows from personal experience the event is unique to Richmond. As a resident he hopes it stays that way.

“I travel all across the country and I don’t see an event like this in no other city but Richmond,” Scott said. “I just came from California, I’m in New York a lot, and I make more contacts, business contacts, at Fridays at Sunset in Richmond in the summertime than I do in a year traveling around the country.”

Some members of City Council agree with the residents who turned out to support Fridays at Sunset. Councilmember Martin Jewell described the event as quintessential to Richmond.

“This isn’t complicated stuff here. We have an excellent talent in this promoter, in this event. It brings honor and money to this city,” he said.

Jewell voted in favor of the proposed budget but urged the mayor who he described as “crafty” to find funds for the project and not “kill the goose who laid the golden egg.”

But other members of council were hesitant to support an increase in funding for the event when there are other areas in need of the city’s support. Councilmember Bruce Tyler said because the event has become a success Council decided to concentrate on other city needs.

“It is the only organization I am aware of that we hand money over directly to a for profit entity and not once has that gentlemen offered to open his books to show us the money he is taking out of the City or losing in the City,” Tyler said.

The budget Council President Kathy Graziano called the “best budget in my six years on City Council” passed with an unanimous vote, though the version isn’t written in stone. Jones said it is possible funding for Fridays at Sunset could be restored with end of the year adjustments to the budget.

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Caroline Jackson

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