Organizers of the annual Azalea Trail Run, which brings thousands of runners to the streets of downtown Mobile each spring, are grappling with a spike in fees the city is charging for police protection. Last year’s event was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2021 race has been rescheduled for October, but Port City Pacers President Jonathan Dick said the group was surprised to see a 30 percent increase in the number of projected fees for police protection and traffic control since 2019.
The projection comes on the heels of other recent increases, and the higher fees are now threatening the financial feasibility of the race, Dick said.
“It seemed odd to me that personnel costs would go up $4,400 in the space of a year for the exact same [race] course, but there was no discussion about it and not a lot of room for negotiation,” he said. “We used to have a lot more events in Mobile, but now the only event we have on city streets is the Azalea Trail Run. Others have become prohibitively expensive for the amount of people that participate.”
The Port City Pacers typically host smaller charitable races, but the Azalea Trail Run draws national and international runners with cash prizes and a health and fitness expo at the Mobile Civic Center. Race Director Peggy Olive said she’s been involved with the Azalea Trail Run since 1992, and until recently, the organization paid nothing for police protection.
“I became race director around 2008 and we went from having to pay zero dollars to paying any overtime that was necessary,” she said. “There were multiple changes in police chiefs, so I don’t know who was setting policy at the time, but then we went to a minimum of $100 per officer — $25 per hour for four hours minimum — and now it’s getting to a place where we are basically paying the salaries of all those individuals.”
Olive said the race would be impossible without police protection and noted the Mobile Police Department has handled traffic and security each year sufficiently, but the fee increases have been a “huge hit.” Fortunately, increases have been subsidized by the Mobile Sports Authority, Olive said.
City spokesperson Jason Johnson said the reason the cost of police protection at events like the Azalea Trail Run has increased in recent years is “first responders have received multiple pay raises during Mayor [Sandy] Stimpson’s time in office.”
“There have been five ‘cost of living’ raises for all city of Mobile employees and an additional sixth pay adjustment specifically for our first responders,” Johnson explained. “When events utilize police officers they pay for the salaries of those officers, and events like the trail run require a lot of personnel because traffic has to be controlled throughout the entire length of the race the entire time.”
Dick said the city does not differentiate between nonprofit and for-profit events, and does not account for the economic impact the Azalea Trail Run has on the Mobile area.
“The thing I’m most curious about is the transparency involved,” he said. “I understand where the city is coming from given its past experience with performance contracts and I understand the city doesn’t want to foot the bill for private events, but with us being a charity and promoting fitness and running, which brings tourists and runners to Mobile from across the Southeast … I think we’re having a tougher time of it being a charity than if we were for-profit competitive racing. If we get priced out of Mobile, we’ll have to have the race in some other place and it looks bad on Mobile.”
Public Safety Director James Barber said the city is willing to work with groups on costs, particularly if they have volunteers who can help manage traffic along the route. Neither Dick nor Olive have met with the city about the issue, but plan to before their application for the 2021 race is approved.
“We have a significant economic impact on Mobile but that impact isn’t taken into consideration when we are assessed fees by the city,” Dick said. “I’m not asking for it to be free; I would just like more transparency and other factors taken into account when we’re assessed fees.”
Olive said, “The Port City Pacers mission is to promote health and fitness through family-friendly activities. It’s not an easy task and can be costly. The Azalea Trail Run has a prize purse associated with it and over the years it has been greatly reduced, when we want to put more into what the runners get and what the runners enjoy. We’ve been reluctant to raise prices because family economics are definitely involved. So it’s a big deal.”
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