Basset hound Dora got a ride from owner Lynn Fietek at the Animal Humane Society’s charity walk in Golden Valley. City officials say the walk is smoothly run, but other events are taking a toll on staff time.

Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

Good works put squeeze on Golden Valley

  • Article by: MARY JANE SMETANKA
  • Star Tribune
  • April 24, 2012 - 9:13 PM

Thinking of having a 5K run or a walk for charity? If Golden Valley is the intended host, it's probably time to look for a new location.

The city has been flooded with charity and community events and festivals, so much so that the city is taking a hard look at its involvement as it begins 2013 budget discussions. City Manager Tom Burt recently told the City Council that the demands on staff time linked to those events are stretching a thin city staff even thinner.

"At some point, we're going to have to say 'Uncle,'" he recently told the City Council.

The issue is the invisible in-kind work that city employees devote to those events. Organizers of special events like the Animal Humane Society's Walk for the Animals, which draws up to 10,000 people, pay the city for the cost of hiring off-duty police for security, firefighters who are on hand to help with a health crisis and public works staff for street detours or cleanup. But with 35 special events annually and the number of permit requests growing each year, the strain on the city is growing, Burt said.

The city cut the equivalent of four full-time employees this year and had no increase in its 2012 budget. On just one recent day, a city employee exchanged 15 e-mails with someone who was organizing an event in the city.

"It's a redirection of resources," Burt said. "It's time we could better utilize for day-to-day service to residents."

City spillover

Other cities, including Bloomington, Richfield, Minnetonka and St. Louis Park, said they were not seeing the same kind of rise in charitable and community events that Golden Valley is seeing. Part of the issue might be that the city shares a border with Minneapolis, where the Chain of Lakes and parks are so popular with special-event planners that park and recreation officials have begun refusing them to prevent overload.

In Bloomington, Doug Junker works in licensing and permits and is the point person for special-events planning. Last year the city, which has about four times the population and land area of Golden Valley, hosted fewer special events: about 30. Junker said the time-consuming issues for Bloomington city staffers tend to be less with established events, such as the Race for the Cure at the Mall of America or the Iron Girl race at Normandale Lake Park, than with smaller groups that don't understand the city requirements for special events.

"Some groups do go away because they've never done this and didn't think they'd need generators, Porta-Potties and street barriers," Junker said. "It's nice to have a good 60 days to work this out with the city. ... You can't just bring in a generator, it needs to be grounded and you need an electrical permit for that. And you can't just close Old Shakopee or Lyndale -- those are county roads."

In Golden Valley, Police Chief Stacy Carlson is the first contact for much of the organizing.

"We've got two things happening at once," she said. "We have a lot more small, grass-roots organizations putting on things like memorial runs, while [we are] continuing to cut budgets to core services.

"It's a push-pull moment. People want to raise money with these events, but this has to come secondary to our primary mission."

Organizers of Golden Valley special events start the planning process with a $25 application fee. That amount may need to rise, Burt told the council. But in other cases, the city may simply have to say no, he said.

Fees may increase

The signature charity event in Golden Valley, the Walk for the Animals in Wirth Park, is so organized and has so many volunteers that planning runs smoothly and almost no cleanup is needed despite the participation of up to 5,000 pets, city officials said. But other events need considerable advance work that takes an invisible toll on staff time.

After someone fills out an application, Carlson meets with staff from her department, supervisors in public works and often the fire chief and someone from park and recreation. If it's a new event, the event coordinator will be invited to answer questions and talk about a route, the number of participants and the possible impact on the city. Insurance, public notification and traffic control plans all have to be in place before the city grants approval.

Burt, whose duties as city manager include voluntary work putting up the farmers market sign each summer Friday in the City Hall parking lot, said that in addition to special-event fee increases, the city may look at expanding the role of a 20-hour volunteer coordinator. Perhaps there's a way to involve volunteers more in the special-event process, he said. That discussion will happen when the City Council begins having budget discussions later this year.

"We're in very tight financial times and '13 is going to be a challenging financial year," Burt said. "We have to carefully evaluate where we put our money."

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380 Twitter: @smetan

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