Special events cost money, let’s work together to find solution

Event fee draft reflects service costs, respectful feedback necessary

A proposed new city special events policy has caused a bit of social media uproar in the past week, but the truth is, there are honest, legitimate reasons that these fees are being considered, and we are likewise seeking honest, sincere feedback and suggestions from our community partners.

I trust no one seriously thinks this is some attempt by the city to kill off popular public events. No one is trying to discourage the growth and development of events that our citizens enjoy and that bring people to our community.

I think those who have conducted events in Newton would agree that city staff goes out of their way to assist event planners to help them succeed and make it a great experience. I personally have been meeting with community leaders to discuss what more we can do to boost Newton’s reputation as a vibrant community and to continue adding events and activities that make our city come alive. We don’t just want to be a great place where people want to visit and live. We want to be THE place.

But at the same time, all cities are facing unprecedented budget pressures. As state government has cut services, local governments have been expected to step in and fill the void. Yet we are under the same taxpayer pressures to keep taxes as low as possible. And, while our state government has struggled to manage their own budget, they have also been sending down mandates and restrictions on local government budgets that make it even more difficult to meet the increased costs of providing essential services to citizens.

To get as lean as possible, over the past two years we have eliminated some job positions, consolidated others, delayed filling vacancies as long as we can, and searched for every way we can think of to be more efficient and cost-effective, while also trying to deliver exceptional service.

The restrictions on local taxes force cities to rely more and more on user fees, particularly for services that we are not required by law to provide. Our city commission, like other governing bodies all across the state, has asked that staff review all of our services and what (if anything) we have been charging to see if user fees are in line with our actual costs.

All services cost money to provide. The question is who should bear the cost. When the users of the service don’t pay directly for it, then by default all citizens are subsidizing those costs.

We do have a lot of special events in Newton. They range from large-scale events such as Taste of Newton, the Downtown Car Show and the Chili Cook-off, to small events, such as closing parks for employee appreciation events, family reunions, fundraisers, etc.

One of our busiest days of the year is the Fourth of July, when neighborhoods all over town request streets barricaded for block parties. Our street crews literally spend an entire day delivering street barricades, all of which later have to be retrieved. Barring an emergency, on those days our street employees have no time to spend on their regular duties. Other events require parks staff to spend the day loading and unloading dozens of picnic tables. Clearly there are real costs to providing those services.

Our staff was asked to develop a list of charges that would represent our actual costs for special events and to put together a draft of a special events policy. We evaluated the services we’ve been providing over the years, the labor and equipment used, and we surveyed surrounding cities to learn how other communities handle the issue.

We then contacted the organizers of many past community events, sent them our draft policy and fee schedule, and invited them to share their feedback at a meeting at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at City Hall. The purpose of the meeting is to give the people and organizations who would be affected by the fees an opportunity to learn about the proposal, to consider what it might mean for them, and to provide productive feedback and suggestions.

We hope to hear calm, honest feedback. If the impact of the fees would be game-changing in some way, is there still some level of fees that event organizers could absorb or pass along to vendors or participants, which would help out the city without doing damage to the event? Should some events be partially or wholly exempt from these fees? If so, what kinds of criteria should be established to differentiate between those events and others?

The draft policy is just a draft. It can certainly be altered in response to the constructive feedback we receive. It will then be up to the city commission to decide whether to adopt any or all of those kinds of charges and whether some activities might be partially or fully exempt from such fees.

We have enough negativity in this country, and it’s been disheartening to see on social media that some people are so willing to react in anger and to take personal shots at people who are just trying to do their jobs in good faith. I hope that at the meeting Thursday we will have a great—and respectful—conversation and that everyone will be helpful in finding win-win solutions for the community.

Bob Myers is the city manager for Newton.