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Committee approves fees for programs at planetarium

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"I can't see how you can recover these costs because nobody is producing (events) to make money," says community volunteer and former Roswell City Councilor Judy Stubbs about a proposed policy to implement fees for events utilizing city locations, services or equipment. The policy was approved by the Roswell City Council General Services Committee Wednesday and is scheduled to be considered by the entire City Council Oct. 12. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

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A much-debated special events policy and a new proposal that would establish a protocol for charging fees at city attractions and programs have been approved by a Roswell City Council committee.

Both still must be considered by the entire City Council at future meetings and, in the case of the planetarium fee proposal, will likely go before another committee as well.

The Roswell City Council General Services Committee heard Wednesday afternoon for the first time a proposal that would institute fees for programs offered by the Robert H. Goddard Planetarium, part of the Roswell Museum and Art Center.

While the proposed fees are being introduced in part because the planetarium is set to reopen Oct. 13 following a major upgrade and renovation, the policy is also meant to establish a guideline for how the city can start to institute charges and fees at city-operated attractions and offerings, such as recreation programs and the zoo, that will allow recovery of a portion of its costs.

“In working with the (city manager), this is something we kind of want to move forward not just for the museum or the planetarium but for all areas where we take in revenue,” said Administrative Director Elizabeth Stark-Rankins. “We are talking with the Council about what is that level of subsidy, if you will, that we want to support these particular services or programs.”

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Caroline Brooks, executive director of the museum, said the concept is similar to what is done at state-operated museums in the state.

“The proposed guideline would allow for conversations about what it costs to run programs and to set forth goals to reclaim expenses,” she said.

She explained that the planetarium’s renovations, including a new digital projection and surround-sound system that will allow it to offer educational and entertainment programming very different than could be offered in the past, provide an opportunity for the planetarium to serve the public in different ways.

Before organizational changes and the renovation, the planetarium was jointly operated by the Roswell Independent School District and the city and its presentations were geared mainly to school children. Now the city bears all the costs of operations and personnel as well as an expanded ability to offer regular presentations of educational movies, lectures or other offerings to the general public.

The city proposes to institute fees that will allow the planetarium to recover 30 percent to 50 percent of its operating costs each year. Fees are not firm at this point, city staff said, but the draft materials presented to City Councilors suggested fees of $5 for adults and $3 for children ages 4 to 12, with discounts or lower fees for military members, senior citizens, Roswell residents, museum members and other categories of people. Group rates also would be instituted.

In other action, committee members Steve Henderson, Tabitha Denny and Natasha Mackey also approved the Special Events and Film Policy, although two community volunteers continue to express concerns about the language of the policy and the proposed fees that would be charged to event organizers requiring the use of city services, locations or equipment.

Wednesday marked the third time that the General Services Committee approved the policy, but it has twice been rejected by the Finance Committee for numerous reasons, including concerns about how fees would affect nonprofit organizations and events.

“I think this policy, primarily because of the expense and because of some the things in here, really detracts from stimulating the economy or getting people involved in the community and from taking pride in the city,” said Judy Stubbs, an active community volunteer and a former City Council member. “I am afraid there will be a lot of events that might not happen because of this.”

She explained that most special events held on city property are done by volunteers for a good cause and that they make no money from the activities to pay the fees that would be charged. She also said that the purpose of a city is to provide services to its citizens and that the appropriate way to fund events is with gross receipts tax collections.

Stubbs also objected to some of the wording in the policy that was unclear or that assumed intentions or outcomes.

“There are a lot of things in here that I am not comfortable with at all,” agreed community volunteer Rita Kane-Doerhoefer. “If this goes to Council and it is approved, there will be no longer a Veterans Parade Committee. There will be no longer a Veterans Parade (after this year) because we cannot afford it, not with the cost of the barricades at $25 a barricade.”

She explained that parade organizers would have to pay $25 for 72 barricades, or $1,800, in addition to other charges. She also said that a cancer fundraiser she is involved with would have to pay about $8,000 for city services when now it is able to send any money it raises to charity.

“I put on a lot of events and have put on many events through the years, and nobody came to me and asked me what I thought,” she said.

Stark-Rankins said that, as it stands now, the city rarely applies existing policies regarding fees, no matter what type of event it is. She said she personally wants the City Council to consider reinstating a provision to allow waiver of fees for certain events, although prior committee meetings rejected that provision.

“Every event is unique,” she said. “Every event has its own personality and purpose.”

She and committee Chair Tabitha Denny said the draft policy is also meant to create more consistency and fairness in how fees are charged, ending practices they have heard about where “people with friends in high places” are charged no fees while other event organizers have been required to pay.

The City Council is scheduled to consider the policy Oct. 12.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 310, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.