The bill for $47,900 in city services for La Mesa's Oktoberfest 2015 has gone to collection, and it may be the last time the city will work to collect from the group that runs the annual event.
The La Mesa Village Merchants Association, which has been organizing the event, has not paid the bill for police, fire, paramedic, and public works costs, according to city records — even though the group agreed to at a city-council meeting last year.
Calls to merchants' association members resulted in referrals to the group's president, who did not answer the phone or respond to email.
The event had been touted by the La Mesa Chamber of Commerce as the biggest Oktoberfest west of the Mississippi River. But after 2014, the chamber of commerce stopped cosponsoring the event, leaving responsibility to the merchants’ group.
Problems run deeper than one missed bill. When the group applied for a permit for the 2015 event — its 42nd year — the merchants still owed the city for the 2014 Oktoberfest and the car show that runs from June to August every year. The group paid up on past debts — around $22,000 — to get the 2015 permit and put down a $17,170 deposit toward 2015 costs.
The permit came with restrictions — cutting the three-day event down to two, closing up at 10 p.m. instead of 11, and limiting the event to East La Mesa Boulevard from 4th Street to Spring Street, where it used to cross Spring Street and include several blocks of west La Mesa Boulevard. Though there was less cost associated with the 2015 festival, there was also less business for merchants —reportedly an ongoing dilemma that is blamed on the Streetscape project.
There were problems with crowds of youths in 2015, according to East County Magazine, which led "to a beefed up police presence including some body armor this year. On Saturday night, many youths came into the festival area who were ‘not here to eat bratwurst and drink beer,’” mayor Mark Arapostathis observed. The earlier closing time enabled police to break up the group due to curfew, the magazine reported.
Councilwoman Ruth Sterling put the unpaid bill on the public record in February because she wanted the public to know that there's a problem and that the city is taking steps to collect the money and to preserve Oktoberfest.
"This money could be fixing potholes," she said. "Instead, it's going to pay a collections agency."
The city wants to continue having Oktoberfest, she said. She has asked for the issue of how to keep the event to come before the city council in April.
"We want to keep the event in La Mesa — it's our event and it's synonymous with La Mesa," says Sterling. "But we have to have partners that hold up their end."