A How-To Guide to Sponsoring Summer Celebrations
Summer invites a celebration, with the long summer nights, the dry, warm weather, and the community spirit in full swing. Add to that the growing fatigue after two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, the desire to reconnect with others, and the dropping of statewide mandates on masks and large gatherings, this summer seems especially primed for public celebrations.
Cities, counties, and other municipalities like to join in the summertime fun by organizing community celebrations and events, such as carnivals, parades, outdoor basketball tournaments, pet appreciation, and outdoor music festivals.
While municipalities can sponsor such events, they do need to be mindful of the gift of public funds prohibition in Article 8, Section 7 of the Washington State Constitution:
No county, city, town or other municipal corporation shall hereafter give any money, or property, or loan its money, or credit to or in aid of any individual, association, company or corporation, except for the necessary support of the poor and infirm…
Avoiding Gifts of Public Funds
When evaluating whether public expenditures on community events are impermissible gifts of public funds, the Washington State Auditor’s office refers to and relies upon Eating and Drinking at Public Expense, a 1987 memorandum written by former Senior Assistant Attorney General James Pharris, which still provides excellent guidance on this issue, even 30 years later.
As detailed in the memorandum, the following three questions determine the legality of a municipality’s expenditure on a celebratory event:
- Does the event match the purposes/power of the jurisdiction?
- Is the celebration being held for a valid purpose?
- What role does the jurisdiction play in the event?
The celebration matches the powers and purposes of the municipality
Cities and counties, as general governments with broad powers, can more appropriately sponsor community celebrations (such as parades and festivals) than smaller special purpose districts whose purposes are more focused and limited.
The celebration is being held for a valid municipal purpose
A 'valid municipal purpose' could be strengthening a city’s sense of community or celebrating a county’s history.
The role of the municipality
If the local government is a co-sponsor, keep in mind that the municipality’s sponsorship of the celebration cannot be in the form of a gratuitous contribution to a private organization. To protect against this, the municipality should enter into a contract with the other sponsor(s) detailing the terms of the co-sponsorship, including funding, and distribution of duties and responsibilities for management and operation of the event. The City of Sunnyside contracts out for the planning/execution of its annual Cinco de Mayo festival, which it funds using lodging tax proceeds.
Formalizing Event Plans
To ensure your summer celebration goes off without a constitutional hitch, MRSC recommends that your municipality adopt a resolution about the celebration.
The resolution should describe the event’s valid municipal purpose and identify the municipality’s role in the event. Here are a few good examples:
- Orting resolution declaring a public purpose and authorizing city sponsorship of Orting Daffodil Festival Day (2022)
- Buckley resolution designating the city’s summer Concerts in the Park Program a special civic event (2016)
- Gold Bar resolution authorizing certain activities in city parks and on public property for annual Gold Dust Days Festival (2016)
- Des Moines resolution allowing use of city facilities and marketing opportunities to conduct Poverty Bay Wine Festival (2014)
Finding local sponsors may also be part of your event planning, and it gives local businesses and organizations a fantastic opportunity to be involved in and supportive of the community. The City of Auburn's 2022 Event Sponsorship Package details the city’s many special events offered throughout the year and the various sponsorship options.
Summer events are made that much better by well-planned out details. To ensure that your event really brings in the public, be sure to address items that can make an attendee feel welcomed, safe, and excited to be there.
Health and Safety
While many people are excited to be active after two long years of pandemic-induced isolation, some individuals may still need assurance that health and safety factors are being considered before being comfortable attending a special event that can attract thousands. The statewide mask mandate is no longer in effect, but your event can elect to include stations where attendees can grab a mask and/or sanitizer or offer temporary washing stations to promote frequent handwashing.
Food and Drink
Eating and drinking al fresco is an enjoyable summer pastime, and beer (and wine) gardens plus food vendors at your summer celebration are a terrific way to provide a fun outdoor dining option.
Alcohol can be sold at community celebrations held in public parks and other public spaces, so long as:
- A special occasion license is secured from the state Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB). (See the LCB’s Special Occasion License FAQ for more detail.) Or, if an independent vendor is hosting the beer garden, ensure they are licensed to sell alcohol at events.
- Local permitting requirements are met (if a local agency permit is required for use of alcohol in public places). For example, the City of Gig Harbor’s Special Events Guide requires beer and wine gardens be confined to designated locations, be fenced, and restrict sales to certain hours when food is also available.
As for selling food at your summer festival, the most essential requirement is that the food vendor obtain a permit from the local health department, as well as a state business license, and any local permit.
Everybody loves a parade, and many municipalities include a parade as part of their special event. Many considerations go into planning a parade, including managing parade participants, traffic control, and crowd safety.
Due to constitutional free speech restrictions, a municipality has limited ability to deny a group from participating in a municipality’s celebratory summer parade. Nevertheless, all participants should be required to submit a parade application form, which will help with logistics (e.g., where is the staging site? which parade entrant are we?) and minimize agency liability. To that end, the application form should include an indemnification and hold harmless clause and should require proof of automobile liability insurance if any participants plan to drive a vehicle in the parade.
While it is true that everybody loves a parade, not everyone will be attending it. To minimize complaints from the non-parade-goers, take time to develop the traffic detour and street closure plan, and provide plenty of advance notification about traffic impacts. As well, inspect the parade route and sidewalk viewing area and repair any significant hazards such as holes and cracks that could cause injury either to those watching or to those participating.
No doubt, your agency’s risk pool will have more risk-reduction tips, so check with them first before planning any summer celebration. Additionally, MRSC’s page on Special Events Permits can help with development of your vendor and parade participant applications.
While there are a lot of details to cover when planning a celebration or special, the community building that can occur through these events makes them a win-win for a local government and its residents. This how-to guide should take some of the guesswork out of those details and ensure an enjoyable summer celebration for all.
MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.