Officials in Nevada’s isolated Pershing County want to make it perfectly clear: When it comes to the wild-and-wacky Burning Man festival held each year in their midst, they’re not going to get burned financially. Not even close.
The want to increase their bill for law enforcement and security for the Labor Day weekend bacchanal in the Black Rock Desert, on land overseen by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
So far, state legislators aren’t buying any price increase plans.
A Nevada legislative panel this week narrowly approved a bill to prevent the sprawling county (population 6,734) from imposing its own rules and fees on the popular counterculture festival, which pumps an estimated $15 million into the local economy, as 50,000 “burners” and looky-loos flock to the desert two hours north of Reno.
“We’re taking a hard look. We’re not paying for this,” Pershing County Dist. Atty. Jim Shirley told the Los Angeles Times. “We’ll hand the whole thing over to the Bureau of Land Management, if that’s what they want.”
On Wednesday, Nevada’s Assembly Government Affairs Committee approved by an 8-6 vote a measure to preclude the county from raising its rates. The legislators want to bar a board of county commissioners from regulating or licensing an event if a federal agency has issued a license or permit for it to take place.
The bill, AB 374, was sponsored by Assemblyman David Bobzien (D-Reno) and a host of other lawmakers after a lawsuit filed last fall by Black Rock City LLC, the organizers of Burning Man.
The suit challenged a new Pershing County festival ordinance that sought to impose a $1.50-per-head fee to cover law enforcement costs. Organizers said the fee would force them to pay the county $600,000 or more, up from $175,000 in 2010.
Organizers also said the ordinance violates their 1st Amendment rights by allowing Pershing deputies to regulate activities at the festival.
Shirley disagrees. “The current Nevada law says if you have an assembly of more than 1,000 participants you have to come to the county and get a license and that you have pay for law enforcements costs,” he told The Times.
“In 2005, our county commissioners entered into contract with the Burning Man people that allowed them to get away from that statute. Since then, I have reviewed that agreement to be out of compliance with the law and told the festival that we are no longer going to honor that contract.”
He called AB 347 “a knee-jerk” response to the festival organizers’ lawsuit, adding that the desert party site is nearly two hours from the nearest sheriff’s substation, most of it on unpaved roads.
“It would seem counter-intuitive to tell counties they have no authority over such events when counties are responsible for keeping the peace in their counties and sheriffs have a duty to provide law enforcement,” Shirley wrote to legislators in a letter he provided to The Times.
A solution, he suggested, would be to make festival-goers exempt from all laws.
“This would ensure that whatever happens, small rural counties will not have to bear the burden of prosecuting state criminal violations which occur as a direct and proximate result of the large outdoor assembly occurring within a particular county,” he wrote to lawmakers.
The committee rejected Shirley’s proposed amendments, and the bill now goes to the full Assembly for a floor vote.
Shirley says that county officials have done the math on what it costs them to patrol the several-day festival and found that “our number of law enforcement wasn’t appropriate,” he told The Times.
The county has provided 26 officers but says it needs to at least double that number.
He said festival planners paid the county $250,000 for security and other services in 2010, while it cost local officials $378,000. “That’s a lot of money for this county,” Shirley said. “So, we’re going to keep fighting this thing.”
The event’s operators charge $350 per admittance, according to Shirley, who said the county’s charges would be a reasonable 3% per ticket.
“My kids don’t go to this thing and I don’t have any use for it,” he told The Times. “But that’s neither here nor there. We’re there to provide services required by law.”