Back-and-forth arguing and a controversial email have put a disagreement between the Paducah Symphony Orchestra and Barbecue on the River organizers in the limelight this week, days before the two sides are set to meet.
The two parties have a meeting - which was arranged by Mayor Gayle Kaler - scheduled for Tuesday to discuss the contract for the Barbecue on the River festival's beer garden. The Symphony has run the beer garden for more than a decade and relies on the $30,000 it brings in to fund outreach programs and symphony performances. Barbecue organizers call the move a business decision.
"They breached the contract, but that wasn't the only reason we made the decision to open the beer garden up," said Barbecue on the River board member Carol Gault, a city commissioner. "The contract was a year-to-year agreement, and it was never said that it was exclusive. It was what was best for the festival and the community. It gives us the opportunity to open it up to other charities."
Barbecue organizers sent the PSO a four-sentence letter in late January, stating that the symphony's services were no longer needed to manage the beer garden. The symphony was blindsided, executive director Daniel Sene said, and the letter contained no reason that the relationship would not continue. The symphony board wrote back asking for more information and requesting a meeting but did not hear a response, so past chairman John Williams, board chairman Roger Truitt and Sene attended a meeting of the Paducah City Commission and asked the city to arrange a meeting.
"They're an important and invaluable partner," Sene said. "We hadn't gotten any feedback or communication at all, so we were looking for any and all avenues to help get communication started."
Festival organizer Susie Coiner and Gault said the contract with the symphony stated that it would give the festival a $1,000 payment for the right to use the beer garden, along with 10 percent of its net proceeds. While past checks have neared $2,000, the check from the 2013 festival was $559. The symphony said that was in part because its expenses rose, but festival organizers say they were billed for tables and chairs for their annual Porkstock event, which has never been deducted before. Coiner and Gault called the calculations and payment a breach of contract, grounds for termination of the agreement.
"We have over 180 contracts," Coiner said. "When someone breaches them, we terminate them. If I don't hold one accountable, everyone will not honor their agreements."
Shortly before the meeting was set, however, the PSO board and Sene sent an e-mail and mailed letter to the symphony's patrons. The e-mail told the symphony's side of the issue, highlighting how the $30,000 is spent annually in the community. In a Frequently Asked Questions portion of the letter, the symphony also challenged the festival's non-profit status and questioned the relationship between the festival and the for-profit retail store Bbq & More.
The e-mail and public concern
Sene said that after the initial story broke, he began getting emails and calls from supporters. He also heard stories of past issues, some from barbecuers who participate in the event on a yearly basis. The questions concerning the festival kept piling up, he said, so he put together the facts he had and sent them to the 1,000 patrons of the orchestra.
"There are questions, and they need to be answered," Sene said.
One of the people raising questions is Dale Perry, head of the Good Ole Boys BBQ team, which has been participating in the festival for 17 years. Perry said he understands that there are costs associated with the festival, but that his booth costs have been rising and he is concerned over the lack of transparency with the festival's organizers.
"No one knows who gets paid and how much," Perry said. "No one knows where the festival ends and the Bbq & More store begins. For years, they've looked me straight in the eye and told me they are a 501(c)3, and they aren't. They've lied."
Sene said he was frustrated that this year's check to the festival was issued on Nov. 5 but that they did not hear of a contract breach or issue with the relationship until the letter came in January. He said the symphony is reviewing whether it violated the contract, but if it did so, it was unintentional.
Perry and Sene said they are frustrated with the lack of communication and transparency within the festival. Their financials are kept behind closed doors, Sene said, which raises more questions.
The city does not oversee the Barbecue on the River festival, but does provide in-kind services throughout the weekend. A 2011 contract that gave Coiner and festival director David Boggs $20,000 in incentives to open Bbq & More required them to complete a financial audit for 2011. City finance director Jonathan Perkins said that audit is not in city files.
The festival's response
The Barbecue on the River festival has never been a 501(c)3, but has operated under the umbrella of several non-profit organizations, namely Paducah Main Street. When the board took over the festival's operations from the city, it was issued a 501(c)4 designation.
"We were a conduit," Coiner said. "We are the reason all of this happens, but we aren't a 501(c)3 and we have never said that we were. We are the conduit for all of these charities to fund raise."
Filing issues with the IRS resulted in the 501(c)4 status being revoked in May of 2012 for failure to file a Form 990 return or notice for three consecutive years. Those forms are being filed and the festival is working to gain the 501(c)4 status. The documents will be available through the IRS in the coming weeks.
Coiner also noted, adamantly, that there is no overlap between the festival and Bbq & More, which is owned by her and festival director David Boggs.
Coiner and Gault also said that anyone asking for information on the festival's financials can talk to them, something the symphony has not done. In regards to the missing 2011 audit, Coiner said she was not aware of the issue. Kaler said she wasn't sure who dropped the ball on the audit, but the city would be asking for it.
The agenda of Tuesday's meeting is not yet firm. Organizers have said publicly that they plan to put the management of the beer garden out for bid, although the specifications and plan of action have not been solidified. The symphony will have a chance to bid on managing the beer garden, Gault said.
Coiner said the organization received calls from up to 15 charities as soon as the news broke that the fundraiser would be open for bid.
"We are really looking forward to this year because it's our 20 year anniversary," Coiner said. "We are excited to see where this takes us. It's an opportunity."
Kaler said she will take part in the meeting but plans to have a minimal role because the disagreement is not a city issue. For Sene, however, he holds hopes that this face-to-face meeting can build a bridge and ultimately a new relationship.
"I want to make sure that decisions were not based on emotion but in reality," Sene said. "Once we sit down at the table and talk through things, I think with understanding it will be a different story. Mistreating a nonprofit, harming a longstanding and productive relationship is not acceptable."
Contact Corianne Egan, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8652 or follow @CoriEgan on Twitter.