Non-Profits Challenge Sag Harbor Village Event Fees

Dancing in Marine Park at last year's Sag Harbor American Music Festival.
Dancing at Marine Park during this year’s Sag Harbor American Music Festival. Lori Hawkins photo

By Kathryn G. Menu

The Village of Sag Harbor sent invoices for police and custodial services to the boards of the Sag Harbor American Music Festival and the Sag Harbor Chamber of Commerce for events held in September — fees that directors of both the non-profits say were never discussed during the permitting process, and may have been levied despite language in the village code that exempts free public events held on village property.

According to Kelly Dodds, the president and co-artistic director of the music festival, her board received an invoice for $1,514.58 for custodial and police services during its event. Last year, Ms. Dodds said she received a bill for $168 for police services — a fee so nominal she said her board paid the invoice without asking questions.

Ms. Dodds said it was also charged a permit fee of $300 for benefit concerts held at the Old Whalers’ Church during the festival. Funds collected at those events allow the festival to offer free music throughout the weekend. Any surplus, Ms. Dodds said, is funneled into Pierson Middle-High School’s music program, or is used to offer the additional free music at events like HarborFrost. She added this was the first year the non-profit was charged that fee.

In an October 13 letter to the village board, Ms. Dodds sought clarity about the new fees. “In the past, we were exempt from those permit fees as a non-profit,” she wrote. “When I called to question the new expense, I was told that even though we were a non-profit, the exemption was only for specific non-profits such as the boy scouts … Looking back, that hardly seems a fair explanation. How does the village determine which specific non-profits are worthy of the exemption? Have other non-profit organizations been charged new or additional fees for community events? If yes, did they have the benefit of advanced notice or discussion?”

A concert was held at the end of Long Wharf during HarborFest in September. Lori Hawkins photo

On Tuesday, Sag Harbor Chamber of Commerce President Lisa Field, who owns the Sag Harbor Variety Store, said the Chamber received a bill for $1,880.27 for bathroom monitoring, custodial and police services. Last year, the Chamber of Commerce was charged $800 for police services during HarborFest, Ms. Field said, and as such prepared its budget for this year with that fee in mind.

Like Ms. Dodds, Ms. Field also sent a letter to the village board in October asking for the ability to discuss the issue. On Monday, Ms. Dodds raised the issue before the entire board.

“I don’t think our taxpayers should have to foot the bill for extra police, traffic or garbage or anything else when people have fundraisers in our village,” said Mayor Sandra Schroeder.

Ms. Dodds said that while her organization does have two fundraiser concerts, the majority of the festival consists of free music events, open to the public.

“I think it is reasonable, of course, if you need any additional police assistance or anything that an organization should be charged — I don’t disagree with that,” said Ms. Dodds. “I just think there needs to be something set in place so we understand what those fees will be so we can raise money to pay for it.”

The village code does, in fact, address “cost reimbursement,” with a provision allowing the village board to require the reimbursement for “increased police protection, public safety oversight, and public works facilitation.”

“Such costs shall include those over and above routine staffing (e.g., overtime and the hiring of additional personnel) and shall be provided to the applicant prior to the issuance of a permit,” the code reads. “This section shall not apply to any special event held on public property, open to the public that is free of charge.”

For the special event permit fee, the village’s own application states a fee of $125 should be charged for events with an estimated attendance of 150 or over. However, it also states, “Fees do not apply for volunteer and non-profits organizations such as Boy/Girl Scouts, Fire Department, Ambulance, School and Church Groups and the Red Cross.”

Deputy mayor Ken O’Donnell said he tended to agree with Ms. Dodds’ interpretation of the village code, but would defer to village attorney Elizabeth Vail’s opinion. Board members said they anticipated that opinion prior to its meeting on Tuesday, November 14.

“It’s a great event we all look forward to,” O’Donnell said. “I think it is a matter of being more proactive with an effective date for initiating some of these fees, but it is one of the things that is going to have to be looked at because the way I read it is kind of the way Kelly had read it.”

“I generally find the user pays when it comes to anything in life,” said trustee Aidan Corish. “I also believe we have a responsibility as a board to give you some reasonable estimate of what you are getting into. Otherwise why would you ever organize anything if you didn’t know until the end what the outcome was going to be?”

Ms. Dodds offered a compromise where the festival would pay the Saturday portion of the invoice. The $300 fee Ms. Dodds said should be waived. “I don’t know of any other organization that has been charged, except for the music festival, for that fee.”

While Ms. Field was not available to attend Monday’s session, she said she did not believe the Chamber of Commerce should have to pay these fees.

“HarborFest benefits the entire village,” she said. “And I understand this is an issue about taxpayers — let’s not forget the majority of Main Street businesses are paying taxes on those buildings.”

Ms. Field added the Chamber of Commerce brought in port-o-potties for HarborFest, as well as dumpsters, and hired a garbage attendant.

“The chamber does a lot of good for a lot of people, and while these events obviously help businesses, if the businesses on Main Street are not successful, they will go away. And I don’t think anyone wants that.”