Editorial: Keep city safety fees as low as possible
Concord has been feeling its way toward a public safety policy to cover fairs, concerts, road races, fundraisers and special events. The goal is to adequately protect residents and event attendees without unduly burdening event organizers with high costs for emergency services, costs that can discourage sponsors from holding an event. To encourage the frequent public gatherings that make for a vibrant community – something that Concord, despite its former reputation as a staid capital city, has accomplished – any policy should err on the side of providing safety services for the lowest cost possible.
Two years ago, the organizers of what would have been the city’s first dragon boat race on the Merrimack River cancelled the event after learning that the fire department wanted them to pay to station the city rescue boat and four fire firefighters on the river. This year, coverage was provided by the boat and one firefighter.
This year, just days before the opening of downtown’s three-day Market Days celebration, Intown Concord was told that the bill to station emergency fire department personnel downtown would be $4,700. That’s nearly half of what the annual fundraiser nets from the event, which involves hundreds of hours of work by volunteers. The fire department’s bill would have come atop a $6,000 bill for police coverage during Market Days. That fee, and the required level of coverage, needs to be justified.
No standby coverage by the fire department had been required during past Market Days, and the city ultimately agreed to waive the fee and the requirement for emergency personnel. That was the right call, but the confusion points to the need for a clear, comprehensive and fair policy on special event coverage that sponsors know in advance.
Establishing that policy is complicated by state laws that give the “Authority Having Jurisdiction,” which can be a police chief, fire chief, general services director or other public officials, the right to determine what emergency services are necessary.
Given the disparate size and nature of public events, that’s inherently a judgment call, one that’s open to dispute. Given the ad hoc nature of the process, it’s possible that the city council could establish one rule and the AHJ another.
There is, of course, a tradeoff when a big event like Market Days generates an additional demand for emergency services. An ambulance used to ferry fair-goers to the hospital, for example, is not available if a call comes in from elsewhere in the city.
The city’s public safety advisory board plans to address the rules governing special events in coming months. The board should work with Concord’s police and fire chiefs to balance such potentially competing demands.
The current informal policy, agreed upon by City Manager Tom Aspell and Fire Chief Dan Andrus, is to waive emergency service fees when the city itself is one of the event’s sponsors. That’s the case with Market Days, the celebration at Kiwanis Riverfront Park, July Fourth fireworks, and the Rock ’N Race, which has a medical tent staffed by volunteers. Many other events, like the Criterion bike race around White Park, require little if anything in the way of additional emergency services and thus pay no fee.
To ensure fairness, the city needs to formalize its special events policy and post it on its website.
The policy should recognize that Concord needs more, not fewer, events and that emergency services fees, particularly for nonprofits and small organizations, can be an event-killer. Minimizing them should be encouraged. The whole city benefits when visitors drawn by the event patronize local businesses and make Concord a happening place.