By Bill Oakey – May 5, 2014
Once upon a time when Austin was a much smaller city, our local officials did not hesitate to waive the fees for all kinds of special events for things like parades and festivals that benefited the community. These fees cover everything from park maintenance to permits to security and law enforcement services. Today, as Austin has grown into an international destination, the cost of managing crowds and handling a host of other festival related functions has grown exponentially. Many of the fees for those services are still being waived, even for companies that are not dedicated to charities. And much of the cost to do that comes right out of our property tax bills.
At the April meeting of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, Police Chief Art Acevedo received a thunderous round of applause when he made an appeal for canceling future fee waivers for the SXSW Festival. This year’s tab for those waivers came in at $756,000. As Acevedo pointed out, the Police Dept. must compete with other departments for scarce budget dollars. And when funds are not available to pay for extra police at major public events, neighborhood patrols must be reduced and crime intervention is placed at risk.
Is It Time for a New Special Events Fund?
Last week City Council Member Kathie Tovo put forth a comprehensive and quite innovative resolution to create a new Special Events Fund. Tovo’s co-sponsors on the resolution were Bill Spelman and Mike Martinez. This new fund would either supplement or potentially reduce large fee waiver draws from the General Fund, thus saving taxpayers some money and eliminating gaps in funding for parks and police. Possible sources for the new fund could include ticket surcharges for event patrons, as well as expenditures from the hotel and bed tax.
There are several components of the adopted resolution that reflect a wise effort to plan and review the concept carefully. These include soliciting input from citizen boards and commissions, and asking City staff to review special event procedures from other cities. The specific aspects of both large and small events will be reviewed. In addition, the resolution asks for new guidelines and a matrix to evaluate fee waiver applications for large events. You can read the resolution here.
It is not clear from my initial reading of the resolution whether the proposed fee waiver guidelines in combination with the new Special Events Fund would result in eliminating most of the waivers. That certainly appears to be the goal. But here’s my question. If enough money is generated from the new fund, wouldn’t the festival organizers apply for a portion of those funds and then use the money awarded to pay the required City fees? Ticket surcharges turned over to the City would also negate the need for waivers. I plan to address those questions and some others at a City Hall meeting next week. It looks like some taxpayer relief may be finally headed our way on this issue.