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How does Riverhead determine police fees for special events?

08/18/2016 6:00 AM |

Garlic Fest

When the owner of Garden of Eve Organic Farm & Market applied to Riverhead Town for a special event permit for its annual Garlic Festival in 2014, the town charged the business $192 for police services associated with the event. It was the first time since the festival launched a decade earlier that any such fee had been required.

One year later, for the exact same event, the town’s fee jumped to $4,489.

The nearly 20-fold fee increase was unexpected, prompting Riverhead farm owner Eve Kaplan to research the process used to determine the fees charged for police services at special events. What she found is the fees charged to different event planners vary widely and that most organizations pay no fee at all for police services.

Ms. Kaplan’s findings, which she shared with the News-Review, were the subject of a recent discussion at a town agricultural advisory committee meeting, where several town officials expressed frustration with the seemingly random process for calculating the fees.

“I’m not happy with it,” said Riverhead Town Councilman Jim Wooten, a retired town police officer. “To me, it should be a checklist — such as how many traffic control officers you need, how many police officers.”

Agricultural advisory committee member Bob Kern said if it were his farm and he were facing those kinds of fees, he’d “just stop doing the festival and sell the land.”

“We’re not encouraging agritourism as a town,” Mr. Kern said.

So exactly what did Ms. Kaplan discover about what others are charged and how the fees are calculated?

Through a Freedom of Information request, Ms. Kaplan obtained a list of all special permit applications for 2015 in Riverhead Town. The results were varied, but of 68 special event permits issued by the town in 2015, only seven required agreements to pay for the services of town police and personnel. Those fees ranged from as little as $285, paid by the Cystic Fibrosis Cycle for Life on Oct. 3, to $27,746 for the two-day FOLD Festival at Martha Clara Vineyards, the largest event held in town last year. Excluding winery events, Ms. Kaplan said, hers was the only event held on a working farm last year for which any police fee was charged at all.

Events like the Wading River-Shoreham Chamber of Commerce Duck Pond Day in Wading River and the Jamesport Fire Department carnival parade, for which large portions of main roads were closed to traffic, were not required to pay any fee for police services.

At last Monday’s agricultural advisory committee meeting, Mr. Wooten questioned why only seven of the 68 special events were charged for police services.

“What’s wrong with this picture?” he asked. “There’s no rhyme or reason for what triggers the agreement.”

Supervisor Sean Walter defended the practice of charging police fees for certain events only, saying many of the waived fees are for nonprofit groups. Many of the other special events were confined to private properties and did not require police services, officials said.

“We’ve been gentler to the nonprofits,” Mr. Walter said. “A lot gentler.”

Mr. Walter said that same leniency should not be granted to everyone.

“The problem is, everybody wants to have all these fairs, festivals and functions,” he said. “It’s great for the Garden of Eve, but if nobody can get past the Garden of Eve because of the tremendous traffic backup, that’s no good for anybody.”

Riverhead Town Police Chief David Hegermiller said the police utilization fees in each agreement are based on a “worst-case scenario,” meaning they are based on an estimate of the highest possible expense to the department.

Sometimes a less expensive traffic control officer is available, rather than a full- or part-time police officer. That’s a savings to the town, but since there is no way of knowing if a TCO will be available on a certain date, the event host is charged the higher rate. Time-and-a-half overtime pay and fringe benefits are also factored into the cost. If the services amount to less than what the event organizer paid, the excess fees are reimbursed, Mr. Walter said.

“We try to get a traffic control officer first,” Chief Hegermiller explained. “Secondly, we try to get a part-time police officer and, lastly, we use a full-time police officer. But we have to price out the worst-case scenario because I can’t guarantee it’s going to be the other way.”

The 2015 agreements were based on an hourly rate of about $129, plus $10 per hour per police vehicle, Chief Hegermiller said. The amount of traffic and the safety concerns of a given intersection are other factors used to determine the number of officers dispatched for a specific event.

Last year’s two-day Garlic Festival was scheduled to run for a total of 16 hours. It was determined that two officers and two police vehicles were necessary for the entire duration of the event. Instead, Ms. Kaplan hired private security for $800. Her event permit was granted.

Chief Hegermiller, however, said only police are allowed to direct traffic in town.

“On a good day, it’s a busy intersection,” he said of the farm’s location on the north side of Sound Avenue at the end of Route 105. “On a bad day, it’s an extremely busy intersection.”

Ms. Kaplan, who claimed there was no gridlock or stopped traffic during last year’s festival, said Garden of Eve has held the event annually since 2003. For the first 10 years, no police presence was required. In 2013, the town provided one officer at no cost.

Ms. Kaplan, herself a former member of the town’s agricultural advisory committee, has filed an application for this year’s Garlic Festival, set for Sept. 17 and 18, but has not yet been notified of how much it will cost.

On Tuesday, the Town Board approved this year’s Garlic Festival. Ms. Kaplan has until Aug. 31 to sign an agreement about related policing fees, which Mr. Wooten said are still being discussed.

Ms. Kaplan said she hopes the town recognizes that the festival, which costs attendees $5 to enter, is a safe event. She said there are more than two acres of parking space on Garden of Eve’s property and as many as six staff members will be on hand to direct traffic into parking spaces.

“This is a family-friendly, fun, farm festival that is enjoyed by approximately 4,000 people over two weekend days at the end of September,” Ms. Kaplan said.

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Who paid how much?

The following are the only other events charged a police services fee last year:

• A fee of $27,746 for the two-day FOLD Festival at Martha Clara Vineyards.

• A fee of $4,457 for two police officers and two police vehicles, plus $496 for two traffic control officers, for a 5K Adventure and Mud Run held May 8 and 9 at the 4H Club.

• An $800 fee for a police officer, a police car and a traffic control officer for two days of the North Fork Horseradish Festival on April 19 at Long Ireland Brewing Company.

• A $285 fee for unspecified police vehicles and personnel for the Cystic Fibrosis Cycle for Life on Oct. 3 beginning and ending at Splish Splash.

• A $400 license fee for two 5K Trail Runs at EPCAL on June 4 and Sept. 17.

• A $3,736 fee for 7.5 hours of unspecified services July 9 and 10 in 2016. (It was approved in 2015.)

Photo: Garden of Eve’s Garlic Festival in 2015. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder, file)

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