There has been a bit of a social media storm regarding next week’s public informational meeting on a draft special events policy, and I thought I would reach out to each of you on our “stakeholders” contact list for whom I have an email address, and make an appeal for your assistance in calming this discussion.

 

I trust no one seriously thinks this is some attempt by the City to run off any popular City events.  No one is trying to discourage the growth and development of events which our citizens enjoy and which 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 positive experience.  I personally have been meeting with community leaders to discuss what more we can do to further Newton’s reputation as a vibrant community and to continue adding to the list of events and activities which 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.

 

I hope you appreciate the reasons why we are having this discussion.  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 which make it even more difficult to meet the increased costs of providing essential services to our citizens.

 

To get as lean as possible, over the last 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 at the same time trying to deliver exceptional service to our citizens.

 

One of the impacts of the restrictions on local taxes is that it is forcing cities to rely more and more on user fees, particularly as to services which we are not required by law to provide.  Our City Commission, like city 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 in providing those services. In this regard, we have been studying a long list of services and activities to see whether user fees should be increased (or created) in order to recoup some or all of those expenses and alleviate the pressures of covering those costs through property taxes. 

 

As an example, last year we found it necessary to begin charging for what had been a popular free service to homeowners, that being our “bulky item” pickup service.  We caught some flak for instituting charges for that service, although many citizens also came to be accepting of this need and agreed the fee is not out of line in terms of the value of having such a service available.

 

All services cost money to provide.  The question is who should bear the cost.  To the extent 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 Car Show and the Chili Cookoff, to small events such as closing parks for business or employee appreciation events, family reunions, organizational fund-raisers, etc.  One of our busiest days of the year is the Fourth of July where we have neighborhood parties all over town for which they want some streets barricaded off.  In preparation for that our street crews literally spend an entire day delivering street barricades (all of which then have to be retrieved).  Barring an emergency, on those days our street employees are fully consumed with those activities and have no time to spend on their regular duties.

 

As to special events, staff was asked to develop a list of charges which would represent our actual costs in providing each of those associated services for special events, and to put together a draft of what a special events policy might look like.  And this is just a draft.  It will then be up to the City Commission to decide whether and to what extent to adopt any or all of those kinds of charges – and whether and to what extent some activities might be partially or fully exempt from any such fees.  My advice to the Commission will be that, to the extent they want to give some kind of a break for certain kinds of events, that we would then need to articulate the criteria by which those distinctions would be made.  And, most certainly, there can be some strong justifications as to why for some kinds of events that may be okay.

 

The whole purpose of the meeting next week is to give those persons and organizations who would be impacted by those fees an opportunity to learn about what is on the table, to have an idea as to what that might mean for them in terms of additional costs, and to provide feedback and suggestions to help further inform the City Commissioners before they consider any action in this regard.

 

What will be most helpful in this effort is some calm, honest feedback on the impact of any such fees.  If the impact of the entire fee would be game-changing in some way, are there still some level of fees which event organizers could absorb or pass along to vendors, participants, etc., which would help the City out without doing damage to the event?  If there should be some events which should be partially or wholly exempt from these fees, what kinds of criteria and justifications should be established to differentiate between those events and others?

 

We have enough negativity in this country, and it is disheartening in looking at some of the social media posts to see that some people are so willing to just react and to take personal shots at people who are just trying to do their jobs in all good faith.

 

I hope that at the meeting next Thursday we will have a great – and respectful – conversation about this draft policy, and that everyone will be helpful in finding win-win solutions as to all facets of this issue.

 

Thank you.  I am looking forward to visiting with you then.

 

 

Bob Myers

Newton City Manager and

Senior Legal Counsel