Chamber brings raffle into compliance as it works on its finances

After the chamber of commerce received an anonymous tip two weeks ago that elements of its ongoing $10,000 raffle were against state law, the organization is taking steps to bring the fundraiser into compliance.

The chamber held an emergency meeting May 2 to establish an end date for the raffle and discuss its financial needs in advance of the Fourth of July celebration, which it funds and organizes.

As originally designed, the chamber’s raffle did not have an end date. Tickets would have been drawn and the $10,000 prize would have been awarded after all of the 800 tickets had been sold.

The tipster notified the chamber that raffles must have the drawing date, time and location printed on the tickets. There is also a legal time limit on how long raffles can run — a drawing must occur before the end of the following calendar year.

After following up with the state’s charitable gaming office, the chamber learned that they are also not allowed to use the 400th ticket drawn as the grand prize winner. Instead, they will need to randomly draw a single ticket for the grand prize.

In addition, since they advertised additional, non-cash prizes donated from local businesses, the chamber is required to provide those prizes as well, though not interspersed between the first and 400th tickets drawn as initially planned.

“It was a mistake on our part,” explained outgoing Executive Director Brittani Robbins. “I’ve only had a permit for a year.” As Robbins transitions from working at the chamber to working at Sweet Tides Bakery, her colleague Luana Wellons is correcting issues with the raffle. Wellons has also passed the gaming permit test.

“We’re following all the steps that we need to do to fix it,” Wellons said. “People make mistakes. We just need to rectify them in the correct manner.”

Wellons plans to reprint all the unsold tickets with the date and location of the raffle drawing and contact every person who has purchased tickets to explain the changes. Ticket sales will be put on hold until these adjustments are complete. “I know people are already going to be upset but we want people to be the least amount of upset over the changes,” she said.

Chamber staff and board members unanimously voted to set Aug. 15 as the raffle’s end date. This will allow them to capitalize on the economic boost that the town experiences during the summer months. “There’s going to be money in town then,” said Mike Lockabee, who spoke at the meeting. “There’s not a whole lot now.”

It will also give them time to sell tickets — as of last Thursday, 259 of 800 had been sold. Each ticket costs $50, meaning that only $2,950 would be left over for the chamber after the prize payout if community members don’t continue to purchase them.

At the meeting, Robbins strongly encouraged chamber board members to increase their ticket sales because the organization is struggling financially.

Robbins said she was “shocked to discover” that the chamber had been operating at a deficit for six years in early 2023 when she saw its financials. “I had no idea we were running in the red,” she said. She has been with the chamber since 2021; the organization’s financial woes predate her tenure.

On May 1, the chamber asked the borough for a one-time $25,000 contribution, which would be in addition to the $27,000 the borough already gave to its general budget this fiscal year. The money would assist the organization with expenses like fireworks, utilities and insurance for the costly Fourth of July celebration.

Anything that wouldn’t benefit the entire community — like prize money and wages — would be ineligible for funding and Borough Manger Jeff Good would approve all expenses before reimbursing the chamber.

The assembly postponed a decision on the request until its May 23 meeting.

Assemblymember David Powell attended the chamber’s emergency meeting to explain his reasons for the postponement. “What constitutes an emergency to other people does not always constitute an emergency to the city,” he said. He also expressed concern about the chamber’s spending practices.

According to documents submitted to the assembly by the chamber, the total Fourth of July celebration cost in 2022 was around $110,000. Fireworks, one of the event’s biggest ticket items, cost around $12,000. Wages for the royalty competition contestant and assistants came to around $31,000 total. The chamber spent just under $12,000 on T-shirts and swag, including coffee mugs, hats and handkerchiefs.

The chamber’s $7,000 investment in swag was “kind of a bust,” said Robbins, but the T-shirts sold well. That year, the annual royalty fundraising competition lost nearly $27,000.

This year’s events and activities, including street games, canoe rolling and log races, have all been sponsored by businesses and individuals, saving the chamber around $8,000, Robbins estimated.

As of early April, Robbins estimated that the chamber had $34,000 total in all of its accounts. Thanks to sponsorships, staffing cuts and the addition of booth and parade entry fees, chamber board president Bill Burr is confident that this year’s celebration will move forward as planned, regardless of the assembly’s decision. “If the money doesn’t come in from the assembly, then we are probably covered for the Fourth of July,” he said.

However, “it will eat up our remaining funding” and possibly affect the other seasonal events the chamber sponsors, like the pumpkin patch and Christmas tree lighting.

“We can’t fix what happened in the past,” he said. “All we can do is go forward. We’ve spent this year trying to figure out what are our costs, how can we stand on our own. The chamber is a business for businesses, so we’re trying to run it like one.”

Community members who would like to weigh in on the chamber’s financial request to the borough can address the assembly at its May 23 meeting.

 

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