Should the Special Olympics pay the city event fees?

The USA Special Olympics is coming to Seattle July 1-6. According to its web site, “More than 4,000 athletes and coaches representing 50 state Programs and the District of Columbia, along with the support of tens of thousands of volunteers and spectators, will compete in 14 Olympic-type team and individual sports.”  Last week, Council member Rob Johnson introduced an ordinance that would waive the city’s usual event fees, including permits and police staffing, for the Special Olympics. But this morning several Council members had second thoughts, and that ordinance is on hold for a week while they talk it out a bit more.

The reason that this is tricky is because the city is notoriously bad at estimating, planning, and getting reimbursed for its expenses related to events. Last December, the City Auditor published a report detailing the problem, and in particular SPD’s poor handling of event planning and cost recovery. It’s been a problem for years, and costs the city millions of dollars every year.

The Seattle Municipal Code defines different categories of special events and which ones are required to obtain permits and pay fees. Among those are “athletic events,” “city wide events,” “commercial events,” “community events,” “free speech events,” “mixed free speech events,” and “parade events.”

The problem with the Special Olympics is that it straddles the event types: most (though not all) of its events over the six days would qualify as “community events” because they are free and open to the public and are organized by a nonprofit disability organization. But its Opening Ceremony at Husky Stadium is a “commercial event:” tickets cost $20 to $65; there are dozens of corporate sponsors including Starbucks, United Airlines, Disney, Amazon, Accenture, Boeing, Bank of America, Coca Cola, and ESPN; the event name features the organization’s name; it has several big-name acts performing, and it is clearly designed to promote the event and the organization and to raise money. The Closing Ceremony at Lake Union Park, while free and open to everyone, will also require a significant police presence to deal with crowds and traffic.

Some of the Council members are uncomfortable with setting the precedent of waiving fees for such a big collection of events, particularly given the city’s existing lack of discipline around event fees and cost reimbursement. The Summary and Fiscal Note for the ordinance waiving the fees estimates the police staffing cost of the Special Olympics at $31,000, though at least one Council member was skeptical of that figure (and history shows that SPD’s pre-event staffing estimates are not trustworthy).  SPD charges around $70/hour, so that would equate to 442 hours — about 73 hours per day.   According to the Auditor’s report, for a single Mariners game in 2016 the city charged over $16,000 for police staffing (though that didn’t reimburse the total cost). By that yardstick, $31,000 does seem low — unless the police officers are working for free.

Perhaps there is a middle ground, where only the events that meet the definition of “community event” have their fees waived.

We’ll see if the Council comes up with a solution in the next week.


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