Council votes to exempt schools, churches from special-event fees

Unanimously OKs ’14 budget; gives more funds to McCulloch’s office

By Gloria Lloyd

Following a push by Lindbergh Schools administrators and parents, the County Council agreed last week to exempt schools and churches from paying for permits and sign fees for their special events.

Acting on a recommendation by the county Planning Commission, the council voted 6-0 Dec. 17 to add an exception for churches and schools to an ordinance that prohibits and limits special events and temporary signs throughout the county.

The ordinance had been on the books since 1965, but had never been enforced until this year. Fourth District Councilman Mike O’Mara, D-Florissant, abstained.

“There were some issues we were unaware of, and we became aware of them,” County Executive Charlie Dooley told the Call. “I think they did the right thing.”

Lindbergh officials first became aware of the problem last spring, when a county inspector shut down a test-drive fundraiser that would have raised money for student scholarships. County zoning enforcement officers had also approached other school districts and churches saying they had to pay more than $100 in fees or their fundraising events would be shut down.

The new ordinance “flat-out” exempts schools from the permit requirements, county Department of Planning Director Glenn Powers said. Churches can also conduct any of their charitable events under the ordinance, but not commercial events unrelated to their church activities.

“We never discovered how bad our code was until someone started enforcing it maliciously,” Powers said. “I don’t think there’s a whole lot of history picking on school groups.”

All along, churches could hold as many indoors events without a permit as they wanted, so at least one of the times a county inspector approached a church to get a permit was just a misunderstanding, he added.

Strong schools like those in Lindbergh thrive on community support and fundraisers like the ones that the county shut down, Lindbergh Schools Communications Director Beth Johnston told the council on behalf of the district earlier this month.

“My fear is that if taxpayers find out that $100 of their money that’s coming in through the car washes and chili cookoffs were going to a permit for St. Louis County, they would no longer give as generously as they do,” she said.

That sentiment was echoed by Martha Duchild of Crestwood, who is a parent in the district and a member of the Lindbergh Strings Orchestra Development Association.

Duchild also addressed the County Council in opposition to the fees.

“That $100 buys replacement strings or equipment repairs or sheet music or stands or scholarships for needy students. The list goes on,” she said. “Our organization exists solely to fill the strings department needs that the school does not meet.”

Although Lindbergh administrators and parents spearheaded the opposition to the enforcement and the ordinance, the sudden enforcement this year of the long-forgotten permit fees disproportionately affected many of the school districts in south county, which have more unincorporated areas than other county school districts.

For example, organizations sponsoring fundraisers for students in the Mehlville School District have also been paying fees for their events after being approached by county inspectors.

“The county would come up to our booster groups, and they’d threaten to shut them down, and they’d hit them up with this fine or that fine or this fee or that fee,” Superintendent Eric Knost said. “I don’t think it’s right, but I think our groups have been abiding by the rules. It would be good if those rules were reversed, which it sounds like they are.”

In one incident last summer, county officials had Goodwill remove a donation trailer it had parked at Oakville Middle School. The trailer had been at the school for 11 days and already emptied three times before the county got involved and pressed Goodwill to remove it because of small nearby “Donations” signs.

County officials also told the district they objected to the trailer because it was not included in the school’s site plan. The plan has been updated so that the district could bring Goodwill back, but Knost said he plans to allow Goodwill to keep a smaller donation shed at the school instead.

A few months later, county officials approached the district asking to set up an “E-Cycling” event on the Oakville campus, Knost noted — with a trailer.

Jonathan Boesch, Dooley’s south county liaison, first got involved with the issue earlier this year when Lindbergh Schools board member and state Rep. Vicki Englund emailed county officials to ask for a solution.

Changing the ordinance made sense to Dooley, Boesch said.

“Once I explained the situation, he was like, ‘Why are we doing that?’” Boesch said. “It just seemed like a win-win for everybody (to change the ordinance). It seemed like a no-brainer for the County Council.”

Some observers in school districts have theorized that the sudden permit enforcement was an attempt by the county to raise new revenue.

However, the administrative work involved in issuing the permits cost the county more than it gathered in fees, so the county took a loss on every special-event permit issued, Boesch noted.

The County Council unanimously approved next year’s $623 million county budget, including a compromise that gives more money to Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch’s office.

After O’Mara added an amendment giving McCulloch an additional $300,000 above his original budget allocation for extra prosecutors and an investigator, the council voted 7-0 to pass the $259 million general operating budget.

Part of the money will be used to fund a new diversion program for young drug offenders that has been successful elsewhere, McCulloch noted.

Although Dooley contended that McCulloch had enough money in his existing special accounts to fund the extra prosecutors, he told the Call after the vote he is glad the budget passed and supports it even with the additional money for prosecutors.

“It’s still all county money, so at the end of the day, it’s not worth big discussions about it,” he said.