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Should Austin Charge More for Event Organizers to Hold Festivals in City Parks?

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Gabriel Cristóver Pérez
For this year's ACL Festival, the city changed its fee structure. C3 Presents used to pay $500 per year for maintenance fees; now, it pays the city 10 cents per ACL ticket sold.

We’re in the middle of festival season in Austin. On the heels of the Austin City Limits Music Festival, Fun Fun Fun Fest is coming up in less than two weeks. Both events are held at city parks.

A task force is looking at how the city allows its parkland to be used for music festivals. One topic it’s just beginning to tackle: the fees the city charges music festival organizers.

But, state law limits how much the city can charge.

The Parkland Events Task Force has held five meetings. They don’t yet have any new policies for the city to adopt, but here’s one takeaway:

“At the end of the day we’re going to discover the Parks and Recreation Department is just grossly underfunded, period. I mean, period. And they’re doing the best they can,” says James Russell, who co-chairs the task force and directs the Trail of Lights Foundation.

Recent editorials suggest that the city should charge companies more money for holding music festivals on its parks. This year, C3 Presents paid roughly $98,000 to hold the Austin City Limits Festival at Zilker Park. Texas law says municipal fees cannot be charged to create profits – so when a city sets a fee or permit price, it can only charge what it costs to do the job. Regardless, it “appears very likely that the task force is going to address increasing fees charged to event organizers for our parks,” according to Rick Cofer, an attorney who sits on the task force.

How they’ll do that is unclear. Some cities, like Chicago, employ an “amusement tax,” where they tax entertainment companies that bring shows to town. Austin doesn’t have a tax like that. Cofer says that to ensure the most well-maintained parks, the Department has to be upfront about what it costs to maintain them.

“The city could actually charge ACL and other groups that are using our parks a higher fee if we increased the cost of the maintenance. An analogy is, there are lots of different ways that you can clean up your room.”

Keeping a spotless room takes more time and energy, and that work has to be valued higher, Cofer says. The City recently reevaluated one of it maintenance charges: Instead of the former $500 flat fee, events held on parkland now pay the city $.10 per person.

People interested in commenting on the City’s use of parkland for special events can do so at speakupaustin.org.

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