Editorial: The Fee Debate

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Like a shortstop, who first mishandles a groundball before kicking it into the outfield, the Sag Harbor Village Board has compounded its errors as it grapples with the difficult issue of trying to recoup some of the expenses the village incurs from the use of public property for everything from public celebrations to the blocking of a Main Street parking space during a construction project.

The board initially got in trouble when it decided last year to begin charging organizations like the Chamber of Commerce and the Sag Harbor American Music Festival for police and clean-up services after their events, even though the village code expressly stated that as nonprofits they were exempt from such fees.

But before it could get around to amending the code to require those organizations to provide some reimbursement, the board turned its attention to fixing a glitch in the code that allowed property owners working on their buildings to block off parking spaces seemingly at will, while only paying a flat fee of $25 for each space taken out of use.

When word got out that the village was planning to raise the fee for parking encumbrances, groups like the chamber and the music festival, which block off parking spaces, had reason to fear that their largely break-even events would bear the brunt of those new fees. Those fears were compounded when the village board, without offering any reason, failed to consider their permit applications, which had been filed early to give their organizations time to plan their events.

But just as in baseball, when each inning is a chance to start anew, the board now has the opportunity to make up for its mistakes when it is expected to unveil as early as Tuesday a set of new fees covering a range of activities.

For starters, the board plans to charge $75 a day for each parking space that is pulled from service so it can be used to park construction vehicles or stockpile materials. While on the face of it, such a fee might seem on the high side, it should certainly encourage property owners and contractors alike to consolidate the number of spaces they need and limit their time there.

A more problematic matter is a similar $75 fee that has been proposed for each day scaffolding is in place in front of a building. Given that the public typically is not prevented from using the sidewalk while scaffolding is erected, we think the village would do right by either lowering the fee or imposing a sliding fee with a maximum amount per month.

Mayor Sandra Schroeder this week said the village would also roll out a fee schedule for the use of village property such as Long Wharf, Marine Park and Havens Beach, although those fees have not been set yet. Presumably, the board will update the code to require that all groups, including nonprofits like the chamber and the music festival, pay them, although we question what the end game is. If the village collects another $1,000 or $2,000 in revenues from a popular event like the music festival, it will have next to no impact on the village’s bottom line, but it could eat up the small profit the event earns, which is typically donated to the Sag Harbor School District’s music program.

Last week, the mayor also announced that even though the board has been advised to treat all organizations equally, it would give special treatment to the Sag Harbor Fire Department’s Ladies Auxiliary, which just received permission to sponsor a series of free concerts in Marine Park this summer, without being required to pay any fees.

The mayor said that under state labor law, members of the fire department can be considered village employees and that members of the auxiliary, by reason of their connection to the department, should also be considered employees. We think that is a stretch by any definition. But even if the auxiliary’s members somehow qualify as employees, it begs the question as to why they should be given preferential treatment over any other nonprofit organization when it comes to using the public’s property. The auxiliary is certainly a valued organization, but by allowing that non-profit special treatment and not the chamber, the Sag Harbor Community Band, the music festival, and others it devalues the important work those groups do as well.

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