Event organizers, downtown business owners and community patrons alike gathered in the Newton City Commission chambers Thursday night to discuss a potential policy change that has created quite a stir in the past week.
After a draft of a new special events policy was released last week, plenty of feedback was heard on the proposed changes and city manager Bob Myers noted Thursday's forum was meant to both inform and help work through the process — a process he noted has been spurred on by budget pressures.
Given the shrinking amount of federal and state funding received by the city, as well as Newton's current financial situation (with the deficit spending that has occurred in recent years), Myers admitted that forced the city government to pursue other sources of revenue. One option looked at was user fees that had not been addressed in many years and seeing how those fees were covering the cost of service.
"We have to recognize that there's a cost to providing a service and somebody's paying the cost," Myers said, "so who is it and how do we do it? What's the most fair and equitable way to do that?"
In the case of special events, an increase was looked at to help cover the work done by city staff to provide certain services (i.e. street closures, sanitation services, utilities, etc.) in regards to the need — since it takes away from the staff's regular work —for those funds, as well as the trend among other municipalities. Myers noted that Wichita has a fee structure in place, Hutchinson charges for special events and is currently drafting an official policy and El Dorado is looking at taking similar action.
"Other cities are doing it," Myers said. "That doesn't mean that we have to, but it's part of the reality of local government these days. Cities are looking at where can we help take the pressure off the cost of the taxpayers."
Phasing said fees in to allow for adjustment is part of the process, Myers said, with the plan for no potential policy to take effect until 2018. The difference is clear, too. While an event like the Newton Downtown Car Show cost a grand total of $20 in the past, preliminary calculations by city staff show that same event (as it was run in 2017) would end up costing organizers $958 — $500 for street closures ($100 per block), $308 for sanitation services ($7 per cart), $50 for picnic tables ($5 per table) and $75 for street cleaning (one hour), along with a $25 permit.
Looking at the costs from increased fees, and the financial burden some event organizers noted it would cause, Myers questioned those present how much the cost could be deferred among participants and attendees. For some, that was simply out of the question.
"I'm telling you right now, we can't handle it," said Mike White with the Newton Downtown Car Show. "We can't handle an increase. I have nowhere to pass it to."
There were also questions from some about the necessity of some of the services in question, whether organizers could take on some of the work behind the fees the city would be charging and whether certain event types (private versus fundraiser) should be treated differently. One question that proved tricky to answer definitively was that of the measured economic impact of those events.
With the concern raised about those fees, several organizers asked if the city had statistics that quantified how much of a financial impact was felt by the city through special events. Melody Spurney, Newton Convention and Visitors Bureau coordinator, noted the State Department of Tourism has a new tool to help measure that, but it has not been applied to any city events yet.
Myers stated there is no way to know for sure the future economic impact that special events may generate, but said he has heard from some business owners on Main Street who see a drop off in business during event times. Robert Palmer of Back Alley Pizza was leery of that narrative, though, noting he has heard it a lot when talking about special events and called it "hearsay" with not a lot of data to support it.
"For me, I just want to balance the scales and say these are all positive things for downtown," Palmer said. "It's important to think about the economic impact overall in our town."
"We want to see our downtown flourish and thrive, and it takes special events to make that happen," added Dan Heinze of Heinze Insurance.
Eliminating such events would be a "travesty," Heinze said, and in the line of spreading the costs around, he encouraged event organizers to talk to local business owners (himself included) about possible partnerships to help offset any potential fee increases and keep the events going.
Harvey County United Way Executive Director Tina Payne was also high on the events Newton has to offer, pointing to a discussion she had recently with Heinze about the rosy position the city is in having multiple signature events while other towns of a similar size have one.
Continuing to talk and have a dialogue is something Payne sees as crucial in this process, and something Myers admitted was a focal point behind Thursday's discussion. While he wanted to clarify the fee increases that were being discussed, he said the idea was to also have more conversation with organizers to make for optimal event planning in the future.
Whether the fee increases are actually approved is yet to be seen, as a report will go before the city commission at a meeting next Tuesday, though neither the commission nor staff want to see any local events go away.
"I want to see the events keep growing," said commissioner Glenn Davis.
"This is a great way to create buzz to make it a positive place," Myers said. "I don't ever want a Newton citizen to say there's nothing to do in Newton. I want them to say, 'whoa, I have to make a choice.' I'd rather have those kinds of problems in our community."