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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Elkfest appeals Spokane’s call to pay $4,500 for overtime cops at concert

Derek Crowell, lead singer for the River City Roots band, performs at Elkfest in 2017  in Spokane’s Browne’s Addition nighborhood. Event organizers are appealing the city’s order they start paying to cover the cost of police officers to provide security at the music festival, which will celebrate its 14th year in 2018. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Elkfest, the annual free concert occupying center stage in Spokane’s historic Browne’s Addition neighborhood, may have to foot the bill for the addition of uniformed police this year.

Marshall Powell, general manager of The Elk Public House and an organizer of the live music event that has shut down a portion of Pacific Avenue for one weekend in June for the past 13 years, has appealed the city’s request the event pay almost $4,500 to cover security. The city’s hearing examiner is scheduled to hear arguments in the dispute later this month.

Powell said he’d likely have to start a fundraising campaign to keep the event going, should the review uphold the city’s charges for four police officers and one sergeant to be on duty during the evening hours Friday and Saturday. Spokane’s Police Department racked up the greatest amount of overtime of any city department in 2017, a year that saw a significant increase in after-hours pay, and Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl said having his officers work at those events, while necessary to ensure safety, contributed to that amount.

Elkfest already employs private security, Powell said, and crime does not increase in the neighborhood during the festival’s weekend. He pointed to publicly available crime maps for Browne’s Addition to prove it.

“In a worst case scenario, we pay for the cops,” said Powell. Elkfest already has secured its lineup for Sunday, June 10, the final planned day of this year’s festival, he said Monday.

The city argues Elkfest has grown too big to be regulated as it has in years past, and new permitting procedures at City Hall prompted another look at the requirements for this, the event’s planned 14th year.

The legalization of marijuana has led to odor complaints from surrounding property owners, said Carly Cortright, who leads the city’s special event permitting. Noise complaints also have been fielded at City Hall from as far away as the West Central neighborhood, as the music carries across the Spokane River after dark, she said.

“What we have got is a lot of anecdotal, after-the-fact phone calls, talking to people later about their concerns,” Cortright said.

The city requests that the organizers of other events, including those in the downtown core, cover at least a portion of the overtime costs for Spokane police to provide security. Large-scale events, such as Pig Out in the Park, Hoopfest and Bloomsday, have contracts with the city that only require certain percentages of the police cost to be covered, unlike the full amount that’s being requested of Elkfest. Cortright said that’s because there are official, financial impact studies that show those events spur economic activity in town.

Powell said he has been forced to argue before the hearing examiner without facts or figures detailing any increased concerns over Elkfest, which he estimates brings around 5,000 people to Browne’s Addition each summer, a crowd heavily dependent on weather conditions. While he has crime statistics gathered from an internet search, official city records on crime reports won’t be available through a public records request until May 9, after his appeal is scheduled to be heard.

“That raises some questions about discovery,” Powell said. “I’m not sure what they’re accusing me of. They’re not really telling me what the problems are.”

A letter from the Spokane Police Department in March, notifying Powell of the need for the officers, notes that the agency has received complaints dating “back to 2014 and every year since.” Those include over service of alcohol, people relieving themselves in yards and alleys and bringing alcohol purchased elsewhere into the event.

Powell said he believes many of the complaints came after the music ended at 10 p.m. and questioned whether having the police officers there during the evening hours would curb that activity.

But Cortright said the presence of police alone likely would address many of the neighbors’ complaints.

“You’ll probably think twice about blatantly smoking a joint in front of a police officer, compared to a private security guard,” she said.

Rick Biggerstaff, chairman of the Browne’s Addition Neighborhood Council, said Powell meets with neighborhood leaders each year ahead of Elkfest to discuss safety and other concerns about the event. Biggerstaff said he hadn’t heard any organized opposition to the festival from neighborhood residents.

“I think what happens, we kind of expect,” Biggerstaff said of the busier sidewalks and patios, as well as the music. “We’ve had the event for a lot of years.”

Cortright said the city would prefer the event be held in nearby Coeur d’Alene Park, where the noise and other activity would have a buffer from surrounding homes and businesses.

“We would like to move it to the park, if at all possible,” she said. “A park is built for events. A city street is made to move traffic.”

Powell said a change of scenery would defeat the purpose of Elkfest, which is intended to have a block party feel. He also said there would be issues with selling alcohol in the park that would need to be addressed.

The Spokane City Council could have heard the appeal outright, but lawmakers determined the hearing examiner would be a more impartial judge of the decision’s fairness. Still, City Councilman Breean Beggs – who said he hasn’t heard many complaints about the event during his two years representing the Browne’s Addition neighborhood on the panel – believed lawmakers should have some authority over the required security for the festival.

“My view is it’s more of a policy decision, how much police presence, if any, is needed,” Beggs said. “I think the City Council can decide this. It’s not really a legal issue, and not a property rights issue.”

The appeal will be heard by the hearing examiner well in advance of when Powell would need Elkfest’s permit approved. Cortright said such permits typically aren’t issued until a week or two before an event. Elkfest is scheduled to take place June 8-10 this year.

“We want him to have an event, and we’re really hopeful that by having the police there it will quell some of the quality-of-life issues,” Cortwright said.