Monday, October 29, 2007

Lights of the Oligarchs

Fayetteville has spent well over half a million dollars in taxpayer money on its Christmas light bulb spectacle, but few dare mention why the taxpayers got stuck with the bill, how the Chamber claimed all the credit for the event, or who is making money on the little project. It has been a scam from the get go, with taxpayers bending over for the Chamber as usual. It is not the first time that a den of moneychangers has been in the temple to make a buck by commercializing Christmas for their own financial gain.

Back in 1993, a fellow named George Smith was publisher of the Northwest Arkansas Times, and he also had a little undisclosed side venture called Wonderland Decorations, Inc. that was in the light bulb business. Mayor Fred Hanna said Smith started pushing the light bulb project and had himself appointed chair of the Chamber’s Lights of the Ozarks committee. Smith then secured a sweetheart deal on lights from a Dallas firm that imports Christmas lights from overseas, which the Fayetteville Chamber of Cowbirds bought for $3.89 a strand and resold to the City for $5.00 a strand – a quick 29% profit at the taxpayers’ expense – although the City Council was told they were getting the lights at cost

The City also gave big grants of at least $34,000 to the Chamber in 1993 and 1994 for the light bulb spectacle. In 1995, the Chamber asked for another $20,000 from the City, but they were turned down because they had never submitted the required reports or accounted for the money they received in the past. The Chamber then said they didn’t really need the money anyway, because they still had a cash reserve from the 1994 light bulb festival and saw no need to provide a timely report to the city. But in November of 1995, Brian Swain, assistant director of city administrative services, said the Chamber finally provided documentation about last year's spending, so he gave them a check $13,626 and promised to give them another $6,374 as soon as he got an invoice. Your money.

By 1998, former Mayor Marilyn Johnson, then employed as Director of convention and business development for the Fayetteville Chamber of Cowbirds, said she wasn't sure how many light bulbs were on display, but the number was in the "millions and millions." In 1999, it appears that city employees were actually assigned during work hours to string the light bulbs on the square for the Chamber, estimated to be 1.5 million bulbs that year, under the supervision of Harold Dahlinger, city director of building maintenance. In 2000, the city used inmate labor from the city jail to install the light bulbs for the Chamber, estimated that year as 60 miles of light bulbs.

The established practice was clear by then: the Chamber had the city taxpayers on the hook for their light bulb scam. They didn’t even pretend that it was to celebrate the birth of Baby Jesus or even to spread good cheer for the holidays. Fred Hanna said it was a way to “promote” the city. The Chamber said it should draw shoppers to the square, but most retail businesses there are closed at night and the increased traffic does not mean increased sales for anyone except the company that imports the light bulbs, those who resell them to the city at a mark up, and SWEPCO.

Next: The Coody Years

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