4 min

On the ropes

Pride Society finances a mess, short of volunteers

NEED COMMUNITY HELP. Shawn Ewing and Randy Atkinson, this year's Vancouver Pride Society co-chairs, pledge the organization will be transparent, accountable and inclusive. But they need volunteers to help raise money and run this year's Pride Parade. Credit: Gareth Kirkby

Preparations for this year’s Pride Parade almost came to a screeching halt last week, when city staff suddenly threatened to cancel the Parade if the Pride Society doesn’t pay off its debts.

The move came after staff in the special events office urged councillors to withhold approval for the Parade until the Vancouver Pride Society (VPS) pays its park, police, street-closing and ambulance fees from last year-and puts down a deposit for this year’s fees by Jun 30.

It’s city policy, explains special events coordinator Dave Rieberger. All previous debts have to be paid, and a new deposit made, before council can formally approve an event.

The problem is the VPS is down to its last $128 in the bank. And it owes the city of Vancouver and BC Ambulance about $20,000 in outstanding fees-not to mention the soon-to-be-due deposit for this year’s festivities.

But that’s no reason to cancel this year’s Pride Parade, say the VPS’ new co-chairs, Randy Atkinson and Shawn Ewing.

Councillor Tim Stevenson agrees. Cancelling the Pride Parade would be “a huge loss,” says the city’s official liaison to the gay community. “To me, it’s unimaginable.”

The Pride Parade is an important time for the gay community to come together and celebrate “our identity as a community,” he says.

That’s why Stevenson urged council to approve the Parade unconditionally and work out a separate debt repayment plan later. Council agreed.

Atkinson and Ewing appreciate Stevenson’s efforts to defend the gay community and its annual parade. It’s a really good indication that his gay liaison position is more than just a title, Ewing says.

But getting the Parade approved is not enough, she continues. Ewing wants council to waive its fees for Pride, the way it waives its fees for the annual fireworks festival.

City council stepped in to save the fireworks after Benson & Hedges, the festival’s original sponsor, abruptly backed out in 2001. Since then, council has paid almost $400,000 a year to cover the fireworks’ police, park, street-closure and ambulance fees. And it’s considering paying another $400,000 this year.

Ewing says Pride deserves a little money, too-particularly now that it, too, is having some financial trouble.

“And we’re not talking about $400,000 for four nights of firecrackers,” she says. Less than $20,000 should cover all of Pride’s city fees again this year.

Stevenson isn’t holding out much hope. The fireworks is the only event getting its city fees waived right now, he says. Theoretically, council could make the Pride Parade a civic event as well, but it’s unlikely to do so.

For one thing, that would open the door to more requests from all the other parades and festivals in Vancouver, Stevenson says.

But more importantly, council’s gay liaison thinks waiving more fees would be a move in the wrong direction. He wants the city to stop funding the fireworks as soon as possible. “We’ve been saddled with this from the NPA [Non-Partisan Association] who started the whole thing,” he says, referring to the party that dominated council for about 18 years until last fall’s election swept them out of power.

Still, Stevenson says he will support the VPS’ bid for a Celebration Grant when council sifts through the nominees in a few months. But the grant is only worth about $5,000. “That’s not much money,” he acknowledges.

But that’s not council’s fault, he quickly points out. The Pride Parade is not being targeted; it just hasn’t paid its bill. “The Pride Society really has to get its act together to turn this around.”

The VPS’ suppliers would likely agree. In addition to its debt to the city, the VPS also owes about $82,000 to last year’s suppliers; $7,400 to Revenue Canada in unpaid employer benefit contributions; and $15,000 to the Royal Bank-for a total debt of $106,000.

It all comes down to “very poor financial management,” says the VPS’ new treasurer, Barry Piersdorff, who is also a certified accountant with 25 years of experience with profit and not-for-profit agencies.

It doesn’t look like last year’s directors kept careful track of their expenses and revenues, he explains, likening the situation to running a home without ever checking one’s bank statement.

The VPS’ events were particularly poorly planned, he says, pointing to one money losing event after another. The society’s financial statement for 2002 shows that expenses exceeded revenues at almost every VPS fundraiser held last year.

“There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of evidence that they actually sat down and planned the events,” Piersdorff says. “I wouldn’t say, at this point, that any event made money.”

When asked to explain this, Atkinson and Ewing sort of shrug and look a bit bewildered. They mention last-minute problems, such as a lack of volunteers (which resulted in last-minute fill-ins being hired), and the sudden increase in insurance premiums.

Piersdorff says that shouldn’t matter. Problems come up, he says. That’s why good planners make plans-so they can deal with problems as they come up and adjust accordingly.

“Accountants shouldn’t necessarily be driving the bus,” he says, but planners should keep basic accounting principles in mind-and be willing to cancel events if expenses look like they’re going to exceed revenues.

As for the sudden 350 percent increase in insurance fees from $5,000 to $18,000, Piersdorff says it’s taken too much blame for the VPS debt already. “It’s a contributing factor but it’s not the only factor,” he says.

“Systematically, the costs of putting on an event exceeded the revenue. Pride threw a damn good party; they just couldn’t pay for it.”

Ewing and Atkinson say the VPS is now making every effort to pay off its debts. They’re asking their suppliers for a bit more patience and the community for a lot more support. They’re pledging a new openness at the Society, and will be “transparent, accountable and inclusive” from now on.

So far, they say, none of their suppliers have sued the VPS, but several have sent final notices. But that won’t stop the Pride Parade from taking place, as scheduled, on Aug 3, 2003.

Nothing will stop the Parade, they promise. But they need help.