Fairness With Fees

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Sag Harbor Village is home to some of the East End’s most popular, free, community-driven events, including its Sag HarborFest, HarborFrost, the Sag Harbor American Music Festival, and many other smaller affairs aimed at bringing people together and, occasionally, offering financial assistance to organizations in need.

As these largely non-profit events grow, so too may the need for additional village resources to help sustain them. Just how those organizations should help the village defray those costs is ripe for public discussion among the members of the Sag Harbor Village Board of Trustees, village residents and representatives of local organizations. But for the village to levy charges for services it provides without that discussion is arbitrary and unfair. And that is exactly what appears to have happened earlier this fall.

It is doubtful many people would object to the idea of non-profits being asked to shoulder some of the financial burden generated by the need for extra village staffing to hold free events on public property.

However, the village code states quite clearly that free events, which are open to the public and held on public property are not subject to extra fees levied by the village. If the trustees see a need to change that amid mounting financial pressure, there is a public process it can follow to do just that.

Recently, though, both the Sag Harbor Chamber of Commerce and the Sag Harbor American Music Festival were charged $1,514 and $1,880, respectively, for police and other services that village officials say were needed during HarborFest and the music festival. HarborFest events sponsored by the chamber take place entirely on public property, and many of the music festival’s performances occur on stages set up in Marine Park, Carruther’s Alley and on village sidewalks.

Neither organization anticipated being charged these fees because there was no discussion of them during the permitting process for either event — despite the fact the code requires the village present these costs up front for any entity, non-profit or otherwise, that it plans to charge. In the music festival’s case, it was also charged a special event permit fee. As this paper went to press, we had yet to speak to a single other non-profit that had been charged the same fee, and the village’s own application form appears to state that non-profits should be exempt. And it appears that in almost all other cases, they were.

Is it wrong for the village to look at new fee schedules for non-profit events? Of course not. But it must follow its current code until a new policy is adopted and legislation passed and it should encourage a public conversation about such changes before moving forward. If these fees are going to apply to one non-profit, they must apply to all non-profits. It is unlikely any municipal attorney would advise a village board that it can pick and choose which non-profits are eligible for exemption just as it would be unheard of for a municipality to exempt certain restaurants from fire marshal regulations dictating the number of seats they may have.

As with most things, what ended up emerging as a very uncomfortable discussion on Monday during a trustees meeting could have been avoided with some basic communication, which has lately been the root of most issues coming out of Sag Harbor Village. It is an unreasonable expectation for anyone to know what to expect from new rules, new policy and new laws without public discussion.

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