Why support community events?

On Tuesday, the Council will have a special meeting with one item on the agenda: Items related to the Community Events Program…and it’s my fault.  I added an item to last Tuesday’s agenda proposing reconsideration of the Community Events In-Kind support policy and the grant allocations we made on the basis of that policy.  The Council agreed to take up the issue again this coming Tuesday.

Reconsidering decisions should be done rarely, but I felt this one was important.   Northfield community events bring people together from Northfield and from out of town to socialize (build community), spend money (economic development), and help put Northfield on the map (marketing).   The City can’t put on these events, but we can adopt policies which encourage the private organizations which do, we can communicate with these groups in ways which convey how much we value their efforts, and we can provide services to make their events run smoothly and safely.  Community events are valuable for Northfield in simple economic terms as well as helping build community.

Here’s the backstory:

Step 1: When developing the 2010 Budget last year, city staff proposed and the Council agreed to move $31,000 from department budget lines($25,000 from police and $6,000 from public works over time budgets)  to the Council budget to fund in-kind support for community events.   The change makes the Council  responsible for allocating these funds to provide in-kind support for community events and making choices about which events to support and to what extent.

Missed opportunity 1: This would have been the time to begin working with event organizers for annual events to consider how to best use city services for their events, minimize the costs to the city and to event organizers.

Step 2: On March 9, 2010, a draft policy and proposed grant program (accompanied by a nearly 20 page staff report with draft policy and application form) was on the Council worksession agenda.  Reading the report, the need for the policy was justified in these ways:

  • Cost: “The associated costs incurred by the City exceed the $31,000 budgeted” thus “a method/policy is needed to ensure that decisions regarding approval or denial for events are open, inclusive, and the decision methodology is transparent.”
  • Risk Management: The City needed to limit its liability for events on City property by ensuring appropriate insurance coverage and licenses are in place
  • Convenience: Formalizing the application process and giving oversight to the City Clerk rather than multiple departments would be convenient for applicants and efficient for the City.
  • Efficiency: Requiring adequate notice to the city prior to services being needed

At that worksession, Councilor Erica Zweifel asked about the overall policy for community events: is the goal to support existing events?  Encourage new ones?  I asked whether event organizers have been included in the discussion or notified that this item was on the agenda.  They had not, but the Council agreed that event organizers should be invited to give input.

Missed opportunity 2: Inviting event organizers to the table at this point would also have been useful before expending staff time on this policy.   City staff could have notified event organizers that this item would be discussed at the worksession so they could choose to attend and listen.

Step 3: Meetings were held with event volunteers to provide information about the draft policy and grant program, plus afford an opportunity for questions.

Step 4: April 20, the Council approved the revised community events policy and appointed Councilors Pownell, Denison, and Vohs to a committee which would review grant applications and make awards.

Step 5: June 1, the committee came back with their recommendations for grants.  The requests for support totaled about $56,000 compared to the $31,000 allocated in step 1.  The committee recommended granting about $39,000 in aid with the $8,000 overage to come from the general fund contingency line; the Council approved the recommended amount with the overage to be taken from affected department budgets.

Backlash: The DJJD Committee and other event organizers were stunned.  In talking with some of them, their impression from city staff was that 2010 would be used to identify and track expenses with cuts and adjustments to be made in 2011.  With their budgets already fixed and contracts signed for this summer’s events, making up multi-thousand dollar losses would be difficult and recruiting sufficient volunteers to do some of the work would be another challenge.  They expressed their appreciation for the support received in the past and the help city staff have given to help reduce the shortfalls.  But…the ways the city chose to draft and implement the policy, award the grants and communicate with community groups sent the message that the city did not value community events.

My questions:

Where did the $31,000 figure come from? I trusted staff to provide a reasonable estimate based on some real data.  Subsequent meetings between staff and the DJJD suggest that city support has been provided “the way it always has been” but there has been no overall accounting for what services have been provided and what the value of those services would be.   Since the estimated grant request for the DJJD Celebration alone substantially exceeded the $31,000, I am no longer confident that Council decisions had a rational financial basis.  The grant committee also stated: “The subcommittee believes that the original estimates/budgeted dollars were inaccurate.”  The $31,000 represents a substantial budget cut for events, but we still don’t know the extent of the reduction which was made in a manner not open nor transparent.

What is the value of the events to the community in dollar terms? Community events bring dollars from out of town and from Northfield residents.  Events help organizations raise funds to do good things in Northfield.  I wonder how the dollars which come into the Northfield economy as a result of these events compares to the value of services provided.  Knowing the return on the city’s investment would make budget planning and budget reductions in this area fairer as well as more transparent.

What is the value of the events to the community in terms of quality of life and creating a distinctive sense of place?  If we, City government, places a high value on community events, then our budgeting should reflect that priority.  This doesn’t mean we don’t make any reductions in our budget for events, but that we must know what we do, in fact, spend on in-kind support and then make reductions proportional to the value of events to our community.  I have been repeating myself a lot lately, but we must prioritize our budget reductions to maximize spending on the things the city cares about most.  And, those things which have a high return on investment – I think we get a great return from investing in our community events.

Communications, again. By the time the Council saw the draft community events policy much of the damage to our goodwill had been done.  How can the Council help staff anticipate issues and communicate effectively with our stakeholders so we are not forced to do damage control later?  City government needs buy-in from stakeholders, especially in our current budget crisis, and we need to find better ways to communicate with them.

Going forward, I’d like some reassurance about the numbers on which we based our decision; 2010 could be used for tracking community events costs accurately so we can budget better for 2011.   Community events are not immune from budget cuts, but we need accurate numbers before we reduce support.  I’d like to have a policy which states clearly the value of community events in both dollars and community-building and emphasizes the commitment of the city to supporting these events to the fullest extent possible.

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