The York City Council agreed Tuesday to give $3,000 for this year's Martin Luther King Jr. parade after an occasionally heated debate over whether it could legally do so.
Leaders of the Western York County NAACP, which sponsors the parade, said the Jan. 22 event in downtown York will go on as it has in the past, but they are unsure if they could meet legal requirements to use city money.
"We walked out of there with no more in our hands than we came in with," the Rev. Dennis Wilson, president of the NAACP chapter, said angrily after the meeting.
The council, in a 4-3 vote, agreed to give $3,000 in hospitality tax revenue to support the parade with the stipulation that "all legal qualifications" for use of the money are met.
Never miss a local story.
The city has given money for parade expenses in the past, Wilson said. However, city leaders said the use of hospitality tax revenue has come under scrutiny statewide.
City Attorney William Brice told the council that the hospitality tax revenue must be used for a "public purpose" and "public benefit" under state law. Although the law has been in effect for years, Brice said, the use of such money has become an issue statewide and has resulted in several lawsuits.
Wilson asked the council to cosponsor the parade with some other source of city money. But City Manager Charles Helms said that's the only money the city has for such events.
Based on Brice's advice, a city events committee had already recommended that the MLK parade wasn't a legal use of the hospitality tax money, which is intended to promote tourism.
"What we have done is a mockery," council member Denise Lowry, who chairs the events committee, said of the motion before it was approved. "They did not qualify ... What are we asking them to do - go back and lie?"
Wilson and past chapter president Steve Love said they submitted an application for the money late last year, then rescinded it after city leaders questioned whether the intended purpose would qualify under state law. Wilson said he met with city leaders later and gave a line-item budget for the money.
Mayor Eddie Lee got murmurs of approval from a crowd in the packed council chambers when he said he would like the city to sponsor "a serious celebration of Martin Luther King's life and legacy."
However, Lee questioned the NAACP's initial application, noting that the expenses included a clown, videographer, food preparation and "miscellaneous" expenses. It also included money to transport several bands to the parade.
"We cannot give you money to spend, not knowing exactly what the money is being spent for," he said, adding, "it needs to generate tourism. It needs to be clear on the application form."
Lee said he doesn't believe the band expenses qualify as generating tourism. He said advertising the parade to bring people to York would qualify. But Love said most of the event advertising is an "in-kind" contribution and is not paid.
"I get the impression we're moving backward instead of forward in our race relations," Wilson charged during the discussion. "I thought we had gotten beyond that in this city."
Lee strenuously disagreed. "Race is not in this. Do you know what the color is in this? It's green. It's about money."
Councilman Harmon Merritt said he found that the Christmas parade and a Veteran's Day parade, both in York, did not receive any financial support from the city. He said the money given to the King parade in the past "is probably illegal."
Lowry apologized to Love and Wilson, saying she was sorry the issue arose so close to the parade. "I feel bad, at the last minute, we're basically pulling the rug out from under you," she said. "I can't feel good about where we are in this process."
Wilson said the parade also gets support from churches and other groups. Even if it isn't able to use the city money, "the parade will go on," he said.