CT Post reporter Brian Lockhart chronicles the police overtime bonanza from Gathering of the Vibes, the annual hippie-fest salute to the Grateful Dead staged at Seaside Park.
Despite claims from the mayor’s office, the annual Gathering of the Vibes music festival has been an overtime payday for the city police at taxpayers’ expense.
Under a just expired five-year contract, Vibes organizer Ken Hays was required to compensate the city for numerous costs related to staging the attraction at Seaside Park, including security within the grounds. That also included police overtime, said Mayor Bill Finch’s administration during the 2012 festival last July.
Hays has paid the city hundreds of thousands of dollars in reimbursements and donations over the years.
But spreadsheets of police work assignments obtained by Hearst Newspapers through a Freedom of Information request, show that Bridgeport paid the bill for more than half of the police-related expenses in 2010 and 2011, and perhaps in 2012 as well.
In 2010 officers, including several members of the force assigned to narcotics, earned nearly a quarter of a million dollars in overtime pay–a total of $248,385–for policing the Vibes. Event organizers reimbursed the police department $112,351.
For the 2011 event, police overtime increased to $250,205 and the city subsequently received a $115,000 check from the Vibes.
Similarly detailed records were not provided for 2008, 2009 and 2012. One document indicated police sought payment in 2008 of $46,002 for overtime.
The city said the Vibes paid $54,523 for security in 2009.
Handwriting on another document stated the 2012 overtime costs were $319,000. A copy of a check from the Vibes showed organizers reimbursed police for $118,000.
“This is news to me,” said Mark Marko, chairman of the city’s Parks Commission, on the overtime costs. “That’s very surprising, actually. I was always under the belief that in the contract (Vibes organizers are) liable for the police overtime.”
Marko said the commission is mainly focused on making sure the Vibes leaves Seaside Park as it found it.
The festival has drawn upwards of 20,000 fans over four days with name acts like Crosby, Stills & Nash, Elvis Costello, the surviving members of the Grateful Dead, Reggae singers Jimmy Cliff and Damian Marley, and hip-hop artist Nas.
“That type of business-end stuff is more city council,” Marko said of the expenses.
Others in the Finch administration have been aware of the overtime problem.
A five-year contract extension negotiated by the administration, and up for review Monday by the city council’s contracts committee, requires that Hays pay the police department $250,000 plus a 3 percent cost of living adjustment.
In July, at the start of the 2012 Vibes, Hearst Media asked the Finch administration to provide data on the police overtime expenses from 2008 through 2011. Finch’s spokeswoman, Elaine Ficarra, wrote in an email: “The costs vary and are paid by the promoter.”
Pressed for more information, Ficarra said the city’s acting finance director had been unable to locate the necessary records because of an office move.
“She’ll continue to look and we’ll do our best to get you the correct information as soon as we possibly can,” Ficarra said.
On July 31, Hearst submitted an FOI request. The city finally made some Vibes documents available last week.
Asked to explain the 2010 and 2011 police overtime expenses, Ficarra in an email Saturday said in prior years Bridgeport police only provided perimeter security and traffic duties. She said the Vibes was responsible for internal security.
“As of 2010 the city increased its presence both inside and outside the perimeter of the Vibes to ensure that concertgoers and residents of nearby neighborhoods had a safe experience during the four-day event,” Ficarra wrote. “The city did its best to minimize costs, but ultimately public safety was the number one concern of the police chief and the mayor, so this increased cost, over and above what the Vibes paid, was absorbed into the department’s overtime budget.”
The increased police presence coincides with a rise in concerns about drug use at the event.
In 2009 federal investigators began probing the disappearance of tanks of confiscated nitrous oxide or laughing gas.
And the 2009 and 2010 festivals were marred by the drug-induced deaths of Jay Caliro, 29, of East Meadow, N.Y. and Elizabeth Meryl Miller, 23, of Memphis, Tenn.
Councilman Susan Brannelly, D-130, a contracts committee co-chairman, is concerned about the overtime figures provided Hearst. She said committee members want more details about the situation as they consider extending Hays’ contract.
While festival proponents, including some local businesses that serve event coordinators and/or guests, argue the Vibes is a positive event that boosts the local economy, their evidence is mostly anecdotal. The city during the last contract never conducted a cost-benefit analysis.
“How much is the guy who organizes it making and are we being played the fool, if you will?” Brannelly said. “We want to close that gap and make this more equitable without bankrupting the guy.”
Hays did not respond to requests for comment.
In a July interview, he hinted he might have to shop around for another site for the Vibes.
Hays said it costs more to stage a concert in a city park versus a rural venue with existing infrastructure.
Hays said the assumption that he pockets at least $1 million in profits after each Vibes is wrong.
“That’s not even close, ” he said. “There have been years I lost money because of weather, competition or people didn’t like the lineup of bands.”
Under the expired contract, Hays paid a $40,000 rental fee and was responsible for reimbursing the city for parks and public works expenses, which according to other documents obtained through Hearst’s FOI, amounted to $143,654 from 2009 through 2012.
Since 2009, Hays has donated $135,000 to the parks department.
Ficarra said that under the new contract, Hays’ rental fee would increase to $50,000 and the Vibes would have to reimburse the Water Pollution Control Authority for wastewater costs.
Brannelly said if Hays wants to walk over additional demands, let him.
“Let him go find someplace half as fabulous as Seaside Park,” she said. “That would be fine because we’re no longer willing to be losing money hand over fist.”