Fury over festival debt

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Awaiting payment: Red Hill Water Carriers’ Simon Sokolich says he is owed $20,000 by the committee of the Western Port Festival. Picture: Yanni

UP to 15 small businesses may be owed as much as $70,000 in the wake of this year’s Western Port Festival, held at Hastings in February.

The largest creditor, Simon Sokolich, of Red Hill Water Carriers, says he is $20,000 out of pocket after erecting and filling 1.5 kilometres of water barriers the night before the festival held over the 22-24 February weekend. He says he provided a similar, but smaller, service to the festival the previous year and was paid.

Mr Sokolich said he had been assured before this year’s festival that he “would be paid upon completion of the festival and receipt of his invoices”. This did not happen and, by last Friday, he remained unpaid despite repeated requests.

Organisers of the $170,000 festival acknowledge receiving his invoices, with event manager Yvens De Camargo casting doubt on their ability to pay in a letter dated Thursday 23 May: “Our funds come from applying for local grants, sponsorship and donations. “Unfortunately, this year we had a number of issues in consolidating all our funds … and as a result there are a few invoices [that] cannot be paid. We are trying to get access to … funds but, at this stage, there is [no] foreseeable timeframe.”

Mr De Camargo did not return calls from The News.

“We worked all through the night to erect the barriers which I had to pay for as well as pay four staff and trucks – it was a big job,” Mr Sokolich, who bought the business 18 months ago, said.

“I’m only 28 and I’ve chucked all my money into this business. This could shut us down. It’s a real kick in the guts.”

Two weeks before the festival Mr De Camargo said the committee had knocked back potential sponsorship from power company AGL citing community concerns over its plans for a floating gas terminal at Crib Point (“Cash strapped festival says ‘no’ to AGL” The News 13/2/19).

Mr De Camargo admitted at the time to being “up in the air” over the festival’s finances, but was hoping to raise $200,000 through crowd funding and local businesses. Days later just $1600 had been raised – including $1000 from the Save Westernport Group.

Former Western Port Festival committee president Jill Underwood said she had “nothing to do with the financials” over her 12-18 months on the volunteer committee.

“I have no idea how many small businesses are owed money because I resigned from the committee mid-last year,” she said.

“I went onto it to help because someone else had left. I tried to do something of benefit to the shire before resigning due to health reasons; I never had any control of the finances,” Ms Underwood said.

The committee’s current treasurer Terry Cochrane, of a Mornington financial services company, referred The News to the new president Courtney Dayton-Banks, owner of a Hasting dance company. Neither was involved in the running of the 2019 festival.

Ms Dayton-Banks said she found taking over as festival committee president in March a “big mess to walk into” and is working to get things on a more business-like footing.

“We know what is owed and to whom and we are trying to get everyone paid, but there is a lot to go through.”

Ms Dayton-Banks said minutes of a post-festival committee meeting showed Ms Underwood officially resigned on 12 March and Mr De Camargo resigned as acting-treasurer the same day. She said his resignation as event manager was not accepted by the committee.

Cr Kate Roper, who helped arrange a Mornington Peninsula Shire Council grant of almost $60,000 to kick-start this year’s festival, said she was “staggered to hear of the debts”.

“It was not a council event, yet we did a lot of work to get it up and running,” she said.

“Because it was the 50th anniversary we wanted to make it special. I attended a committee meeting with [festival patron and Hastings MP] Neale Burgess on 15 December with 15 people and everything seemed to be going well – it was all positive,” she said.

“Yvens [De Camargo] told us they would break even or be a little bit in debt.

“All along we were doing checks. We were waiting on budgets and other potential sponsors. I asked what money had been knocked back and Yvens told me $10,000. He said they had a $50,000 sponsorship coming from Esso.”

Cr Roper said concerns over management of the festival prompted the shire to withhold $40,000 of the grant until the eve of the festival.

“Yvens told me four days before that he was going to walk away … and then three days before we found out that the event didn’t even have a permit,” Cr Roper said.

As the event drew near, the shire and other potential sponsors urgently sought budget details.

“Esso didn’t see a budget and neither did we,” Cr Roper said.

“I got a 10-line note which I said was not satisfactory … and yet we were trying to make [the event] special because it was the 50th anniversary.”

Cr Roper said the committee was afterwards able to account for all of the contributed ratepayers’ money. “It turns out we gave them most of what they had,” she said.

First published in the Southern Peninsula News – 11 June 2019

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