THERE is no doubt that Halloween has become a Lithgow signature event but debate over whether it warrants another significant funding boost from the civic purse took centre stage at this week’s meeting of Lithgow Council.
And it wasn’t just the financial aspect that had the heat rising; it was a claim that attendance figures for this year’s event had been wildly inflated.
Halloween, now in its third year, was hugely successful as a day long street carnival in October.
Main Street was a surging mass of people from late morning until late at night.
It attracted priceless metropolitan media coverage for the first time.
It comes at considerable cost to ratepayers and most councillors appear to feel it is money well spent.
But not all of them.
The lengthy and at times heated debate began after an application to increase Halloween funding to $120,000 came before council.
This was an increase of $30,000 on this year’s allocation — separate to corporate sponsorship.
There was a recommendation from the Tourism Committee that the council consider committing the increase when the 2016-17 budget is being planned early in the new year.
Cr Ross Higlett, seconded by Cr Frank Inzitari, moved for council to ‘commit’ the funding immediately.
General Manager Roger Bailey ‘strongly recommended against going down that path in this point of time’.
But Cr Higlett argued that leaving the decision until the next budget made it difficult for organisers to plan ahead.
Cr Higlett said the success of Halloween and its importance to Lithgow warranted the funding.
This triggered opposition from Cr Joe McGinnes who challenged the method of calculating the attendance figure of 27,000.
He said estimates were known to often be distorted by a factor of 10 which meant the true figure ‘might be 2700’.
Cr McGinnes said the stated figure had been wildly exaggerated.
When Cr McGinnes accused organisers of deliberately inflating the figures Cr Inzitari called a point of order.
He said Cr McGinnes had placed photographs on line showing an almost empty street to support his opposition to the event.
Cr Inzitari claimed that Cr McGinnes had taken the photos at 7am outside his Main Street shop.
This brought a response from Cr McGinnes that he was ‘sick and tired of slurs on my reputation’.
“You must have counted the ghosts,” he said, then “... I am always out of order.”
Cr Wayne McAndrew also rejected the call for the immediate funding increase and said the application must be decided under proper procedure and wait for the budget.
He said council was facing increasing demands for its services at a time of decreasing income resulting from a 1.8 per cent rate cap, reduced grants and the shifting of more and more responsibilities from state government to local government.
“We have to look carefully at how we spend our money,” he said.
When questioned by Deputy Mayor Ray Thompson why the committee required the extra funding Corporate and Community Operations manager Julie Brozek said the feedback from Halloween was that patrons wanted ‘more entertainment and more lights’.
She said the attendance figures had been calculated by a 10 member team trained in crowd density management who took readings every hour from 2 to 10pm.
Cr Thompson said council should wait to see what sponsors come aboard for 2016 before committing more ratepayer funds.
Crs Martin Ticehurst and Col Hunter also voiced agreement with the challenge to the crowd numbers and the premature approval of extra funding.
Cr Hunter said it was difficult to reconcile an estimated 27,000 in one day at Halloween when Lithgow Show only averages 3400 over two days.
Cr McAndrew also questioned the figures based on the time he had spent at the event.
He felt that between 7000 and 9000 would have been a more realistic figure but agreed it was ‘very difficult to get an accurate assessment’.
But Cr Peter Pilbeam said Lithgow’s tourism credentials had been given a huge boost with publicity that would have cost thousands of dollars in the Sydney media.
As the debate became more and more shambolic and claims that Cr McGinnes was being ‘gagged’ Cr Thompson called for order.
He urged councillors to ‘take a deep breath, give the chair some respect and let the speakers speak without interruption’.
In the end it was a unanimous vote to defer consideration until the new year budget meetings.