Polson City Commission scraps event fee proposal

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After encountering strong public opposition, the Polson City Commission on Monday shot down a proposed ordinance charging fees for special events.

“I feel that we’re doing this a little late in the game,” Mayor Heather Knutson said.

Designed to recover damage and clean up costs incurred by the city’s streets and parks departments, the proposal sought to impose a varied fee schedule for different event types and sizes. This drew criticism from many in attendance who said the ordinance placed an unfair burden on local groups and had the potential to drive business away from Polson.

“When I read through this, I see permit after permit after permit,” Commissioner Stephen Turner said, referring to how the proposal divided costs between street use, park use, vehicle use and other types of licenses. “Do we need a permit just to walk on the place too?”

After nixing the fee schedule early in the meeting, commissioners then attempted to pass a portion of the ordinance that contained an increase in security deposit requirements.

According to a presentation outlining the proposal, the streets department alone absorbes, on average, $162 in damages per event.

While commissioners and members of the public largely agreed that security depossits were a good idea, the discussion eventually fell apart when discrepancies emerged regarding definitions and other details.

“I really think it’s important that we get this right the first time,” Turner said.

Commissioners voted to table the security deposit discussion until its next meeting May 9.

Despite the Commission’s responsiveness to public opinion, the proposal left many in the audience shaking their heads.

Joslyn Shackelford, a member of the Beta Sigma Phi sorority, which organized the Polson Easter egg hunt over the weekend, said her organization decided to move their event outside city limits due to uncertainty over a possible fee schedule. When it came to the issue of damages, Shackelford said her group never received notification from the city.

“Stuff happens, that’s OK,” she said. “We would have gladly paid for that.”

Marilyn Frame, an organizer of the Flathead Cherry Festival, echoed this sentiment, adding that the various parts of the fee schedule would have added up to significant costs for large events.

“We wouldn’t be able to have the cherry festival,” she said. “It’s not possible.”

The discussion was aimed squarely at first year Parks Department Director Pat Nowlen, who reduced the proposed fee schedule several times following feedback from commissioners during the drafting process.

Nowlen said he based the numbers on similar-sized cities in the area, including Whitefish, Hamilton and Columbia Falls.

Aside from a $100 security deposit, which Nowlen said often goes uncollected, the city does not currently charge standard fees for special events resulting an a large burden on his department.

According to the presentation prepared for commissioners, catering to special events currently eats up nearly $30,000, or 17 percent of the Parks Department’s budget each year.

When questioned about why the city has not enforced its current security deposit policy, Nowlen said he has struggled to find resources.

“It was a pretty hectic first year,” he said. “We’ve had new policy and new staff.”

The proposed security deposit fees scheduled for discussion at the next commission meeting range from $100 to $400 depending on the event and equipment in use.

All criticism aside, speakers at the meeting expressed a desire to continue negotiating the details of the proposal. Suggestions included implementing an exemption for veterans’ group parades and other events put on by local volunteers.

“I think there’s a happy medium,” Shackelford said.

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