The city of New Port Richey is wondering if it can still be festive when it comes downtown festivals. After just concluding construction of its pedestrian-friendly Railroad Square, a beautified area to help draw people downtown, the city now is considering ending its investment in special events with the same mission — attracting people downtown. The city is studying a plan to pass through its expenses for 18 special events, including Chasco Fiesta, a Christmas parade, Independence Day-related fireworks and charity fundraisers, to the sponsoring organizations that include the West Pasco Chamber of Commerce, Greater New Port Richey Main Street, and various nonprofits.
It is a familiar dilemma for cash-strapped local governments. There is funding available for one-time capital improvements, but less and less money available for personnel to staff the bricks and mortar projects like parks, fire stations, and even special event attractions.
In this case, the city staff estimated the downtown events cost to the public at $184,000 including police, fire and public works employees. Examining the cost-benefit of these events is a worthwhile exercise considering 16 city employees are financed via the Community Redevelopment Agency that is essentially broke with nearly all of its $2.2 million budget pledged for debt service.
But the importance of the downtown events shouldn't be marginalized. The large-scale Chasco Fiesta, for instance, has deep roots in the city's heritage and provides tourist draw and substantial fundraising opportunities for charities. The city lists its cost for Chasco at more than $85,000. City Council members are correct to ask for a more detailed breakdown of expenses to try to better manage public costs if the city chooses to continue the status quo.
In the city of Tampa, for example, the police department requires every officer to work the annual Gasparilla pirate invasion but does so without incurring overtime costs by mandating the employees to take another day off during that pay period. No vacations are allowed during the Gasparilla week to ensure sufficient officers are available to work the event. The same approach is used in other city departments, a by-product of the city's experience of playing host to Super Bowls. It is a model New Port Richey should emulate if it will curb overtime expenses.
The New Port Richey city staff is cognizant that charities and other agencies have their own budget constraints, "but we have to recognize the fact there are only so many dollars and only so much we can do,'' said City Manager John Schneiger.
Indeed. Being the host to special events is not free. City employees, for instance, must put up pedestrian and traffic barriers before parades and pick up trash afterward. But expecting the nonprofit sponsors to absorb all of the city's costs is unrealistic and counterproductive to trying to develop a vibrant downtown if it means a death knell for the major events.