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Gardner rains on festival

He says event has rainy-day fund, can forgo county aid

PROVO — Utah County Commissioner David J. Gardner believes organizers of America's Freedom Festival at Provo have a "rainy-day fund" of about $400,000 in the bank.

Gardner's concern that organizers have the hefty surplus is stopping him from supporting the giving of $50,000 in tax dollars to this year's patriotic extravaganza.

Festival directors deny that such a fund exists.

"We really need the money," said Linda Walton, who is in charge of publicity for the festival. The festival is organized by a private, nonprofit group that stages the Utah County celebration each Fourth of July.

"There is no such thing as a slush fund," she said. "The festival has always been sort of a break-even thing."

And breaking even has become increasingly difficult. Big-ticket sponsors like Geneva Steel have pulled out, and costs have increased, she said.

The operating budget for this summer's festival will reach $1.2 million, Walton said.

Walton said currently, the festival probably has $200,000 in a checking account — money earmarked to pay for speakers, performers and various venues connected to the 2000 season event.

She said every dime is used for event activities that are mostly offered at no charge to participants.

"There is some in an investment account, but it's totally accessible," Walton said. "If something like that does exist, I'd be really surprised. It would be news to me."

Gardner said he was told by Randy Beckham, former executive director of the festival, about the contingency fund.

Beckham, contacted today, said the $400,000 was the fund balance left over after the 1998 festival. Beckham said Gardner is the most frugal of the commissioners and was promised that after two more years under Beckham's direction, the festival wouldn't be asking for any more money.

However, Beckham did not stay in the position of executive director and is now serving as a part-time consultant to what some see as a new and competing festival called the "Red Hot Fourth" in Salt Lake City.

Walton said the festival indeed had a $400,000 carryover from 1998 but that the money was used as part of the 1999 festival budget.

The commissioner said he isn't comfortable supporting the festival with tax revenue if the festival has that much money sitting idle in a bank account.

"You tell me the rationale, why taxpayers should support something that has that kind of rainy day fund?" Gardner said.

He also said the festival should come in with a request for restaurant tax and transient room tax money like all other groups that apply annually for a share of the funds.

"We haven't been funding all the community celebrations and activities that go on in Payson, etc.," he said. "They should go through the process, see if it stands on its own merits."

Commissioner Gary Herbert said he would be disappointed if Gardner succeeds in blocking the funding to the festival.

"There are few things that we do to motivate and inspire the community," Herbert said Tuesday in regular commission session. "The Freedom Festival is a countywide celebration sited in Provo. It is a celebration we ought to be behind."

Herbert said much of the good generated by the festival activities are intangible and immeasurable. The festival has attracted a national audience and spawned a similar festival in Salt Lake City. he said.

"I think we have an opportunity as well as a responsibility," he said. "The benefits far outweigh the costs here."

Festival organizers will be invited to Tuesday's commission meeting to plead their case.

Utah County has contributed $40,000 to the festival for the past two years. The county budget for 2000 will be opened March 14 for any adjustments, which would include authorizing $50,000 for this year's event if the commission decides to do so.