Photo by Curt Yeomans
An upcoming Halloween event First Baptist Church of Morrow will host for children is prompting discussions about whether non-profit organizations should have to pay the permit fees the city charges to let events take place. The church has to pay the city $80 to hold its event.
MORROW — Morrow officials are pondering a possible change to their permits law after an ex-mayor of the town asked for a permit fee waiver for a Halloween event his church plans to hold for children.
Former Mayor Earnest Duffy asked the Morrow City Council Tuesday to waive the $80 fee First Baptist Church of Morrow is required to pay the city to host a “Trunk-or-Treat” event for children on Oct. 31. “Trunk-or-Treat” events are commonly held by churches and police departments to provide children with a place — usually a parking lot — to do their “Trick-or-Treating” in a safe environment.
Duffy, who served two separate terms as mayor decades ago, argued the city was being unfair to the church and treating it as if it was a new or temporary business moving into town.
“You should either renege on it or revise the ordinance to lessen the fee you charge to churches,” said Duffy. “The church just wants to do something good for the city, but the city is making us pay them a fee to do it.”
City officials said they support what the church is planning to do, but they also argued city staff can’t do anything for Duffy’s church because their hands are tied by the ordinance dealing with permits. The ordinance requires the fee be charged for all events, they said.
At least one city leader wants an exemption for the church, however. Councilman Larry Ferguson asked his colleagues to consider waiving the fee for First Baptist Church of Morrow because of its impact on the quality of life in the city.
“I don’t know if we need to charge them a fee given the services they provide to the city,” he said.
Ferguson’s request was met with some resistance as hesitant department heads and other council members pushed back against his suggestion. They argued the fee was needed to cover administrative costs and waiving it one time — for a one-time church event — might open the door for businesses to sue the city.
City officials said they are not willing to waive the requirement of a permit being needed because of safety and security concerns. They said it helps the town’s police and fire departments know where large people will be gathering within the city’s limits, and ensures proper safety protections are in place.
City Manager Jeff Eady said the city could get into legal trouble if it waives the inspections and someone gets injured because the site isn’t safe.
“Imagine someone gets hurt, and they say, ‘Why did you let happen? Didn’t you inspect the site before it opened for safety violations?’ and we say ‘Well no, we waived the permit for them,’ ” Eady said. “Guess who’s going to get sued.”
Since the city wants to make sure the site is safe, the fee is charged to event organizers to reimburse the city for sending out its fire marshall to inspect design plans and the event location, suggested Morrow Planning and Economic Develop Director Michael McLaughlin.
The typical layout for a “Trunk-or-Treat,” however, is to line cars up in a parking lot. The owners of the cars, usually church members or public safety officials, hand out candy to children from the trunks of their vehicles.
But, while the city may not be willing to bend on requiring a permit for the church’s event, the permit fee is an entirely different matter.
City Attorney Laurel Henderson said the legal issues could be taken care of simply enough by drafting an ordinance change that set up an exemption, however. “Staff doesn’t have the option to waive the fee under the ordinance you have in place,” she said. “If you want non-profits to be exempt from paying the fee, however, then the ordinance can be changed to do that.”
Eady told the council an ordinance revision can be drafted if council members want it.
While it may not be possible to get anything done in time to waive the fee this year, as Duffy requested, Ferguson’s support may force a permanent change in the permit ordinance which would help the church in the future.
Eady, when pressed on the matter, admitted the issue will be used as an opportunity to have a formal discussion on crafting a long-term solution because of Ferguson’s support for a one-time fee waiver.
“I read between the lines to mean that is what he wanted us to do,” said Eady.