By Doug Ireland
---- — SALEM — It’s becoming a sign of the times.
Cash-strapped nonprofit organizations are asking town officials to waive mandatory fees that commercial entities consider part of the cost of doing business.
In the last three weeks, selectmen have been approached by two groups seeking waivers, prompting lengthy debates over whether bad precedents would be set if the requests were granted.
First, SalemFest organizers asked for permission to post several dozen signs advertising the annual event in town rights-of-way. Then, the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Salem requested a waiver of permit fees for a temporary storage trailer.
Selectman Patrick Hargreaves was reluctant to honor the club’s request, afraid it would lead to other nonprofit organizations getting in line to receive financial breaks.
“I think we’re going down a very slippery slope if we start waiving permit fees,” Hargreaves told fellow selectmen last week.
Hargreaves noted that the club called itself a “struggling nonprofit” in its letter to the town.
“I can’t vote for this,” he said. “I want to make sure the Boy Scouts, the Field of Dreams and all the other nonprofits are getting the same treatment. “
Boys & Girls Club board member Sonny Tylus had asked selectmen to waive $110 in electrical and building fees. The Planning Board had already granted the club permission to keep the donated trailer on the property for a year.
The trailer was donated to Geremonty Drive club by Victorian Park owner Larry Belair, who recently retired and closed his business after more than two decades.
Selectman James Keller said he had no problem granting the request since the trailer would only be temporary.
But Hargreaves still wasn’t satisfied.
“There is no guarantee they’re not going to come back to the Planning Board year after year after year to make it a permanent structure,” he said. “We have had storage containers on property for 10 to 15 years.”
That was a sore subject for Keller, a longtime Planning Board member and former chairman.
“Don’t get me started,” he said.
Selectmen granted the waiver, but Hargreaves — a volunteer with the Boy Scouts and Field of Dreams — abstained from the vote.
The decision came only two weeks after selectmen were asked to waive town regulations for SalemFest, scheduled for this week.
Betty Gay and fellow organizers spoke out against a new town policy that forbids signs from being placed in rights of way. Signs are now only allowed on private property, but it costs $10 for each one.
“They just don’t cut the butter for our charities,” Gay said.
She told selectmen SalemFest organizers had been able to place their signs for years without any problems.
The board adopted the policy earlier this year after another nonprofit group, the Salem Farmers Market, kept its signs up longer than permitted.
But selectmen debated whether they would be obligated to all nonprofit organizations if they granted an exception to a single group.
“It’s a matter of trying to be fair,” Keller said.
Former Selectman Stephanie Micklon said SalemFest was being used as an example.
“You’re hoping SalemFest will play by the rules no one else is playing by,” she said.
The request was denied, 3-2, with Keller, Stephen Campbell and Michael Lyons voting in opposition and Hargreaves and Chairman Everett McBride in favor.
Selectmen voted unanimously to waive the $10 sign fee.