Punkin Chunkin organizers consider moving out of Sussex County, possibly Delaware

Sarah Lake Rayne sarah.lake@doverpost.com @sussex_sarah

Insurance liability issues and rising support services costs could drive Punkin Chunkin out of Sussex County and possibly out of Delaware, according to John Huber, president of the Punkin Chunkin Association.

Huber said his nonprofit organization has been in talks with Gov. Jack Markell's office regarding stabilization of the group's costs for services from the Delaware State Police and the Delaware Department of Transportation, as well as a liability limit for any lawsuits filed as a result of the festival's activities.

Huber said over the past six years, the festival has grown by "a healthy" 56 percent, while its costs from the state and from Sussex County have grown by about 600 percent. He added that all proceeds from Punkin Chunkin either go toward the next year's event or to various charitable organizations and scholarship funds.

"It's frustrating to see that as we grow, more hands are going into our pockets," he said. "There's a perception that this organization is a cash cow and we have money to pay for short falls in state and county services."

For this year's event, held last weekend, the DSP submitted to the Punkin Chunkin Association a proposed cost of $52,000 for police presence. DelDOT submitted a proposed cost of $35,390.94 for traffic control.

Huber said while the state agencies are actively seeking ways to reduce those numbers, the Punkin Chunkin Association "still has some work to do with the county."

According to County Administrator Todd Lawson, this year's proposed cost for emergency medical services and 911 dispatch coverage with a mobile command unit is $11,960.

"I'm not going to comment on whether that's expensive or not, because the costs are what they are," Lawson said. "What if we weren't on site? Anyone who has ever attended Punkin Chunkin knows it's a logistical nightmare just to travel to the event because of its size and number of attendees. We literally couldn't get into the event if there was a call because of the amount of traffic."

Lawson pointed to last year's car fire in the event parking area, as well as a 2011 ATV accident that seriously injured a volunteer as examples of the need for county presence.

Chip Guy, county spokesman, said a $12,000 bill from an emergency services department with a $12 million annual budget hardly represents a money grab, as he said has been accused by some members of the public.

"The position of the county in this has been that we don't believe the public supports or wants to subsidize public safety for events that command and demand a substantial investment of infrastructure and support," Guy said. "There's no getting around the fact that Punkin Chunkin where it is today versus where it was 30 years ago is an event that draws tens of thousands of people."

Huber said the need for a liability limit is necessary to protect the owners of Wheatley Farms in Bridgeville, where the event is held every year. A lawsuit filed last month by the volunteer injured in the 2011 ATV accident has organizers seeking legislative changes.

"We have insurance but the state of Delaware has no cap on the amount of money someone can sue for," he said. "We can buy $50 million in insurance, but if someone sues for $55 million, we're not protected."

In regards to the liability and cost issues, Huber said he's informed Markell's office that festival organizers must see monthly progress. Otherwise, they're going elsewhere. Huber is tightlipped regarding where the festival would go, but did say he has strong leads on one site on Maryland's Eastern Shore, as well as another site in Delaware. Either way, Punkin Chunkin would leave Sussex County. A decision must be made by March.