Park rental fees still the talk of the town

EAST PALESTINE – The possible removal of rental fees for non-profit organizations using the community center is creating quite a stir in the community.

“I think it’s more than an issue, it’s become a real debate around town. People are either 100 percent for waiving fees or 100 percent against it,” resident Lisa Hamner said.

Hamner told council Monday she thinks it’s commendable of the village to want to work with non-profit organizations, and doesn’t feel that removing the fees is taking away a large chunk of revenue from the village’s coffers. However, the fact that residents are already paying on a park levy makes a difference.

“It’s been a tough economy. There have been a lot of levies that are worthwhile. I think it says how much the park means to our community that they did renew the levy … I have a valid complaint that for us to give away money when they are renewing the levy has a lot of merit,” she said.

Roughly 60 to 70 percent of residents approved the renewal of 1-mill and 2-mill levies for parks and recreation at the 2012 general election. The levies combined generate $121,600 a year for park operations.

Finance Director Traci Thompson has said the community center rentals fees by non-profit organizations alone generate about $2,000 in revenue a year for the park.

Council has been discussing removing the fees for non-profits since the Feb. 11 meeting.

Council member Don Elzer, who is president of the local Chamber of Commerce, made the suggestion. Council member Endia Wisser is vice-president of the Chamber, which is a non-profit organization.

Elzer believes the fees should be removed for non-profits that benefit the village.

“Our village mission is to make this the best place we can to live and work. There are some things here organizations can’t do,” he said, referring to the operation of the police, street or other village departments. “There are some things the village can’t do, and that’s where the organizations come in. We are all working toward the same thing. This is less about the money and more about us working toward the same goal.”

Under the fee scheduled already in place, non-profit organizations are not charged for use of the center Monday through Thursday between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m.

The center has always been available at no charge on weekdays to senior citizens groups and various club meetings, with others being charged between $50 to about $200 for 12,- 4- and 2-hour rentals.

Removing the fees would only be for evening and weekend rentals.

Council member Ellen Beagle stressed that because she or other members of council may oppose removing the fees it does not mean that they aren’t supporting the organizations.

“If we don’t give free rent that does not mean that we don’t support or appreciate that non-profit,” she said.

Hamner said that if fees are removed, it should be very specific which group is eligible for that waiver, and why.

“Our efforts should be to assist these organizations while ensuring it’s not open season for all non-profits,” she said.

Council member Alan Cohen agreed.

“If there is a problem that developed since we originally brought this up, I think it has to do with the uncertainty of who is going to be using it. When you say a non-profit and a non-profit that benefits the village of East Palestine, that to me is a little bit vague and indefinite. Maybe we need to zero in somehow on which non-profits might be appropriate and which ones won’t,” he said.

How to make that determination wasn’t discussed, although council members were in agreement that guidelines should be in place if the fees are removed.

Village Solicitor Shirley Smith also suggested establishing guidelines.

“It definitely needs some parameters … I agree it is going to create difficulty from a management standpoint and some controversy,” she said.

A first reading of legislation to remove the fees was approved. Second and third readings are required before a vote can be made. The legislation would amend the 2008 legislation that set the fees to begin with.