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Amherst reviewing policy on who pays costs for police at events

People in Amherst are getting good workouts for good causes – and so is the Police Department.

Sponsored walk, run and bike events are getting more popular in the town, growing to 39 last year, according to the Town Clerk's Office.

But that growth has presented a problem for town officials. Many of the events have enough participants, or are routed through enough busy roads, that police officers on overtime are required for traffic and crowd control.

"People are living healthier lifestyles, so there's more of these," said Police Chief John Askey. "People want their event or program to be known, so they want it to be in a high profile area."

But who pays the costs for police presence? Not the sponsors, in many cases.

In fact, Amherst in 2017 recouped only slightly more than half of the $62,679 it cost the town for the 25 events that were large enough to require police presence.

That's due, in large part, to the way the current policy is written. The town waives police costs for events that benefit the town, Village of Williamsville, the Buffalo Niagara Heritage Village, the Memorial Day parade, school districts, fire companies and private schools.

But town officials say some sponsors have taken advantage of these exemptions by trying to more closely affiliate their group with an exempt organization in an attempt to get their fees waived.

Since the current policy was enacted in 2012, town officials said there have been times when an event sponsor only tangentially connected to an exempt organization has submitted a letter on the organization's letterhead requesting a waiver. That has created the perception that waiving of fees is unfair and arbitrary in the town.

"There's a couple exemptions given that we couldn't figure out under what authorization they were made," said John J. DiPasquale Jr., a member of the town's Government Studies Committee, which has been researching the issue.

There are other peculiarities.

If the cost for police presence is over $1,000, then the event sponsor is responsible for reimbursing the town the whole amount. But if the cost is under $1,000 then the payment is waived. An event organizer whose police costs total $1,000 would pay the full amount while an organizer whose costs total $999 would pay nothing.

"The current policy has too much discretion," said Amherst Councilman Shawn Lavin.

Buffalo hosted even more "moving events" than Amherst last year: There were 79 walk, bike and run events racking up $125,000 of costs for police presence, said Buffalo Police Capt. Jeff Rinaldo. Of that total, the city donated 1,264 man hours worth $76,000.

Each event is reviewed by the city's special events committee to decide if it should be exempt from fees, Rinaldo said. The city typically recoups its costs for larger events like races and the weekly Slow Roll bike rides, he said.

"If it's something like Slow Roll, or a race, where there's a lot of moving parts to it and a lot more manpower required those events are generally invoiced," he said.

Amherst officials are considering changes to the way they handle requests to hold run, walk and bike events in the town.

The town's Government Studies Committee has been looking at the issue for a year and presented its findings last month to the Town Board. The committee's recommendation was that the Town Board remove all exemptions for organizations and waive the first $1,000 for all events. The application and permitting process would be streamlined, and would include a $25 non-refundable application fee.

"The aim is for it to become a standardized town policy that all organizations are treated the same and there is no favoritism, there is no involvement by the Town Board," said DiPasquale.

Lavin said he intends to submit a resolution for the Town Board to consider that would adopt the committee's recommendation.

"This new policy hopefully, if everything goes well, will make it more fair across the board," he said. "That's the intent, for there to be less ambiguity about who gets waived and who doesn't. This should be a fair playing field for everyone."

Waiving the first $1,000 of costs is seen as a way to help smaller organizations, which may not have the funds to pay for police presence.

"You don't want to squash any chance they have of fundraising," said Lavin.

In 2017, only seven event sponsors were required to reimburse the town. They paid $32,651, and the Ride for Roswell bicycle ride in June paid Amherst the most – $16,253 – accounting for half the total.

It's a marquee annual event in the town, requiring 28 officers for the hours between 5:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. to handle the 8,000 bicyclists who are expected. The event's command center is run out of Amherst Police Headquarters on Audubon Parkway.

"Amherst is our big partner, for sure," said Thomas Johnston, the Ride's operations manager.

Ride planners work with 21 first responder agencies representing 14 communities, four counties and two countries but coordinate closest with Amherst because the ride is based out of the University at Buffalo.

Ride officials said they recognize there's a cost associated with stationing police to control traffic along routes and ensure everyone's safety.

"We just consider it a necessary investment in safety planning to make the day as safe as possible until the event is over," said Johnston.

Askey stressed that he supports these events as positive for community relations between the public and his department, although they are "very time intensive." Key to their success is involving police in the early planning stages to determine the right location and timing, he said.

"We can't have a race down Niagara Falls Boulevard at 5 o'clock on July Fourth," he said. "The Police Department simply doesn't have enough resources to police that event."

Buffalo takes a similar approach when event sponsors meet with police.

"They look at the reality of, 'OK, is it rush hour? Delaware Avenue? You can't do it,' " said Rinaldo. "They work together to put these events in a location that has the least impact on the neighborhoods and traffic."

Walking events are easier for police because participants can follow traffic control devices, Askey said. But participants in a timed and sanctioned run can't be stopped to let traffic pass. Only town police can stop or regulate traffic on streets, he added.

"The use of volunteers has been brought up before. Why don't we put a vest on someone and put them at the intersection of [Niagara Falls] Boulevard and Maple?" Askey said. "Well, it's just not legal, it's not safe and we can't count on volunteers when there's a race being run."

The department will often suggest alternatives, such as starting events at the Northtown Center and utilizing the adjacent off-road path, which requires no police presence and minimizes costs.

"I think the town needs to regulate it in some manner so that we do it safely and in safe neighborhoods and they realize there's a cost to it," said Askey.

Buffalo officials also support the increased number of events because they showcase the city, often drawing in outsiders.

"They showcase what we have to offer," Rinaldo said. "We definitely look forward to the events but the reality is sometimes they can overly burden a municipality and sometimes you have to try to recoup some of the costs."

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