Safety concerns complicate Sinterklaas planning

Approval for the 2014 Sinterklaas celebration has been held up by public safety concerns, as the Rhinebeck village board, police department, and event coordinators struggle to handle the event’s surging attendance.

The police department is seeking to move the popular winter parade that highlights the celebration away from Route 9 because they say they don’t have enough manpower to ensure crowd safety.

“The Sinterklaas event is almost a victim of its own success,” Rhinebeck Police Sergeant Peter Dunn told the village board at a special meeting on Aug. 14, attended by Sinterklaas organizers and Rhinebeck Emergency Coordinator Henry Campbell.

Dunn estimated that up to 6,000 people attended the nighttime parade last year, which he said put a major strain on the police department. A key problem was the closure of Route 9, which was needed to accommodate the parade and the heavy pedestrian traffic beforehand.

“Obviously, it’s an event that everyone wants to see happen, and everyone wants to see it happen safely,” said Mayor Heath Tortarella.

For this year’s festival, to be held on Dec. 6, Dunn proposed an alternative route which would be similar to the one used for the Memorial Day parade and would not require closing Route 9. The route would start at the Mulberry Street entrance to the fairgrounds, proceed to E. Market St., then turn west towards the Rhinebeck Bank parking lot. The parade would use that lot to access the municipal parking lot, where Sinterklaas typically wraps up with a small show.

But Sinterklaas founder and director Jeanne Fleming rejected the idea. She said people would just cluster in the E. Market St. section of the route, creating even more congestion in a smaller space. She also said it would be impossible for the parade to navigate the Rhinebeck Bank parking lot and the narrow connection to the municipal lot.

When pressed by the board, Dunn said that he would be able to ensure public safety on the existing route with the help of County Sheriff’s deputies, but that would require a bigger budget.

“I don’t have an opinion,” said Trustee Scott Cruikshank, “but listening to both sides, if they want to maintain that route, and it’s a possibility that we could bypass with extra manpower…How do we cover the costs?”

Tortarella replied that “it’s probably not fair to raise more tax money to provide more security.” Sinterklaas is not a municipally sponsored event and is put on with funds from donations.

Fleming said it would be a challenge for Sinterklaas to cover any additional costs.

“We don’t have a ton of money,” she told the board. “We’re all volunteers. I’m not paid for any of this. Neither are the other 52 people who work on this all year round.”

Sinterklaas planners might also have to pay the insurance costs for the event, which in previous years have been covered by the village. Tortarella noted that the village did not pay the insurance costs for this year’s Memorial Day parade, which was sponsored by American Legion Post #429.

“Can we get the town involved more?” asked Trustee Howard Traudt. He also recommended that the Sinterklaas coordinators seek assistance from Dutchess County, through the office of County Executive Marc Molinaro.

Fleming was open to the suggestions.

“There are a lot of towns that wished they had the problems that Rhinebeck has—with the fair, with Sinterklaas,” said Traudt. “I think it’s important we try to keep these things here.”

The board has asked Dunn to determine how much it would cost for extra police support. They set a follow-up meeting for Sept. 2 to review his findings.

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