2005-09-08 / News

Council to decide whether to charge for town services at benefits and events

By Dotti Farrington

Should the town begin to charge do-gooders for benefits and other events — even the Fools Rules and the July 4 fireworks?

Town Councilors this summer started to seriously mull over the issue. They asked department heads to prepare recommendations, including hourly rates, for services provided for such events. The department heads already are convinced the fees are justified, at least as long as officials and taxpayers are keeping such tight reigns on their budgets, especially for payroll.

Hints foreshadowed recent talks about assessing possible fees, but those seemingly noxious notions were set aside by a kind of parochial pride about being able to support worthy works, at least those that are home-spun.

A similar brief review more than a year ago was turned aside by the council with observations that the events attract tourists and other customers for local businesses, and that costs should be part of town expenses.

However, budgeting scrutiny in recent years has included revisions or additions of fees to taxpayers in general — some of whom consider the fees as supplemental taxation — because of increasing costs to the town. Thinking about cost-based fees is reflected in such fees as those increased for use of the transfer station, and those for recreation programs.

To date, town has not charged any event charges, except the nominal $5 registration fee; the town usually waives even that fee for all sorts of occasions to help defray the costs for undertakings by groups that generally conduct themselves for credible causes.

Who benefits?

Happenings range from those involving simple enjoyment, such as picnics, silly sailing and Fourth of July festivities, to those raising urgently needed money for major charities. Conanicut Island’s benevolence often has been extended, beyond town groups and their events, to off-island operatives seeking to schedule events using Jamestown’s unique seafront locations to benefit nonlocal charities recognized here as worthy.

Many events have evolved from games and gambits with little audience to gigantic gatherings attracting awesome attendance. Jamestown, through resident volunteers and tax-paid workers, supported the events with labor and love — and with nary a fee for services that have been increasingly needed.

The whys and wherefores of the wisdom for such good-willfulness seemed to spring from the sense that the workers were there anyway, so it did not cost anything to provide the services — in exchange for appreciation and pubic relations and maybe tourist attraction.

However, the times are not just now starting to change. They already have changed. Department heads are expected to present data to the Town Council about examples of how much costs have been incurred and by which events in recent months.

Who pays?

Here and in other places, municipal workers already have duties stretched beyond the usual work week, meaning they must be paid overtime — or the department heads work on weekends and holidays to limit the pressure on the payrolls.

The overtime factor is especially true for whatever police coverage is needed. The department head working to save payroll charges seems to be most effected for the town’s parks and recreation department, particularly for events at the Community Center.

Police for traffic and general supervision, public works crews for clean-up, park and recreation staff for co-ordination and administrative chores, town staff for license processing that includes oversight for health mandates and insurance coverage — to protect the town from lawsuits. The list of costs may be outpacing the event activity itself, and maybe even the benefits derived from such noble and “free” efforts.

Some witnesses to the evolving town review of event fees believe that true cost analysis may show that the net proceeds for any cause may not be worth all the hustle and hoopla. Or at least, they say, the cost to taxpayers needs to be tallied, and a separate town budget account needs to be created, if the practice is to be continued.

What’s next? Acting Town Administrator Thomas Tighe told the Town Councilors last month that many communities already have established fee schedules for some of the types of events conducted in Jamestown. He noted also that the town of Jamestown pays the school department of Jamestown to use its facilities.

“It is (costing) more than ever expected,” Council President David Long said. “We need a fair formula about costs and charges to have events here. The town should have a choice about who the town is to subsidize,” he said.

Staff leaders referred to the increasing use of the island by non-residents and non-resident groups, to the widespread attraction of people from far away for some local events, and to unspecified costs to supervise even such events as the half-hour procession for the Holy Ghost feast.

The councilors asked Tighe and his staff to prepare data about such costs and about schedules of fees.

The next round of talks on the topic is due at the next council meeting, Monday, Sept. 12.

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