EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

February 6, 2013

Fee waiver proposal falls apart

Council looks to eliminate or cap costs for nonprofits

By Shawn Regan

---- — HAVERHILL — A proposal to eliminate the practice of waiving expensive building fees for nonprofit groups is headed back to a study committee due to confusion over a measure that was expected to pass last night.

Mayor James Fiorentini helped craft the proposal, which would limit the fees that the city can waive for any charity in a given year. The measure was triggered by an October request by the YMCA for the city to waive $29,000 in building fees for the group’s Wadleigh House renovation.

Fiorentini has said he wants to end the practice of giving the breaks to nonprofits because losing revenue from the fees creates a hole in the city budget that must be made up somewhere else, potentially causing service reductions, he said.

The YMCA ultimately withdrew its fee waiver request when it became controversial, leading several councilors to call for a policy governing similar requests in the future. After the YMCA withdrew its proposal, the council referred the issue of discounting fees for nonprofit events and projects to a study committee to research the law and develop a uniform policy with the mayor’s guidance.

The mayor proposed a $250 annual cap, which would effectively put an end to waiving building fees. Building fees are typically in the thousands or tens of thousands of dollars.

The measure would still allow lesser fees to be waived, however. They include fees for holding festivals, tag-day fundraisers and neighborhood block parties, as well as for one-day liquor and food sales licenses and to rent the City Hall auditorium, among others.

The proposal considered last night would have set aside a specific amount of money annually in the city budget, possibly $5,000 or $10,000, to be waived. Each nonprofit would be allowed a percentage of that amount per event or project.

Several councilors said they found the language confusing and unnecessary.

“Why would we have a fee waiver amount in the budget when it’s a guess as to who going to want one and for how much in any given year?” Councilor Michael Hart asked. “I think we’re making this more complicated than it needs to be.”

Councilor Mary Ellen Daly O’Brien said the language was confusing and wordy.

“We’re getting bogged down in minutia,” she said.

Council President Robert Scatamacchia said he has a problem waiving building fees for nonprofits in the first place, because they don’t pay real estate taxes.

“If they are profitable enough to have a construction project going, they should be able to pay the same fees everyone else pays,” Scatamacchia said.

Councilor Colin LePage said it’s also unclear in the current proposal whether water and sewer fees could be waived.

After the discussion, the council decided to refer the matter back to the Administration and Finance Committee for further study.