Re-examining Panagbenga: A Historical Trail

(First of two parts)

While the public eagerly awaits what is in store on the 13th staging of the Baguio flower festival, the city council here remained in limbo over the official result of the government audit of some P7 ($170,731.71 based on an exchange rate of $1:P41 as of Feb. 19).

Northern Dispatch
Posted by Bulatlat
Vol. VIII, No. 3, February 17-23, 2008

BAGUIO CITY (246 kms north of Manila)) – While the public eagerly awaits what is in store on the 13th staging of the Baguio flower festival, the city council here remained in limbo over the official result of the government audit of some P7 ($170,731.71 based on an exchange rate of $1:P41 as of Feb. 19).

In a resolution filed in January, and approved Feb. 4, the city council asked the Commission on Audit (CoA) for an official audit report of city funds disbursed to the Panagbenga stagings for 2003 (P2 million, or $36,900.37 based on the 2003 average exchange rate of $1:P54.20) and 2004 (P2.4 million, or $4,2826.55 based on the 2004 average exchange rate of $1:P56.04) including other disbursements allegedly from the Priority Development Assistance Fund of Rep. Mauricio Domogan.

The CoA audit observation memorandum, issued in October last year, implicated several members of the local finance committee and former elected officials in the disbursements of public funds to the Baguio Flower Festival Foundation Inc. (BFFFI).

The city council also wants a copy of the corresponding comments of named city officials, including City Budget Officer Leticia O. Clemente, City Treasurer Thelma B. Manaois, City Accountant Antonio Tabin and then Mayor Bernardo Vergara, among several other City Hall personnel.

There is (government) money in Panagbenga

The Baguio Flower Festival, originally a week-long celebration of flowers and the city of pines, was purely a private endeavor when it started twelve years ago in 1996. Because it was then a private endeavor, a minimal amount of government funds was allotted for it.

Feb. 9-18 that year was declared as the first flower festival week in Baguio City through Resolution 007-1996. Then led by Atty. Damaso Bangaoet, who incidentally headed the John Hay-Poro Point Development Corp. (JPDC), the first flower festival relied heavily on private and community participation for the success it claimed to have achieved that year.

Government co-sponsorship then amounted to P25,000 ($953.47 based on the 1996 average exchange rate of $1:P26.22) only, appropriated for the official float and  landscaping, through Resolution 037-1996.

Now called Panagbenga, from a Cordillera term for that time of year when plants start blossoming as reportedly coined by then Mayor Mauricio Domogan, the flower festival has since become a yearly activity in the highland urban city that people in the lowlands usually yearn to witness and experience.

On the second staging of Panagbenga, in 1997, the activity was envisioned as a yearly event that would draw throngs not only from the different provinces in the country, but also international tourists.

Claiming to be biggest crowd-drawing event, the street-dancing and float parade, which was originally staged on the same day and later on different days, has registered its viewers in the millions.

Department of Tourism (DOT) records show a significant increase in tourist arrivals in the city in February each year since 1996. The number of visitors to the Panagbenga Festival, reported to have been reaching millions in recent years, only dropped in 2005, due to the meningococcemia scare that hit the city that year.

The festivities remained week-long until 2001, when Resolution 033-2001 declared a Panagbenga Month. The city allotted P100,000 ($1961.17 based on the 2001 average exchange rate of $1:P50.99) that year for the float, volunteer meals and other related expenses, slightly lower than the 1997 government funding of P105,000 ($3,962.94 based on the year’s average exchange rate of $1:P29.47).

According to Clemente, the city usually spends some P100,000-P200,000 for the annual festivity, on top of  private sector generated funds. The appropriations were usually done to finance the official floats, costumes and meals of officials and volunteers and are made through the City Architect’s Office, she revealed in an interview.

Legal accountability over public spending

Panagbenga’s public funding reached its peak in 2003 and 2004 when organizers, then led by Mayor Bernardo Vergara as chairperson of the Baguio Flower Festival Foundation, Inc. (BFFFI) drew from the city treasury P2 million and P2.4 million, respectively.

Clemente said the amounts were drawn from the city as seed funds when the city took over the management of the flower festival. She claims the BFFFI was able to raise P10 million ($184, 501.84 based on the 2003 average exchange rate of $1:P54.20) in 2003 and another P12 million ($214,132.76 at an average exchange rate of $1:P56.04) in 2004.

The amount was reportedly deposited in a private bank account in a government bank where expenses were allegedly drawn, free of the usual government accounting and budgeting procedures.

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