City News

Nonprofits could pay more to use city parks under new fee policy

A family sits in Northgate Park during a neighborhood event in 2021 (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Salem nonprofit organizations can now receive a maximum 20% reduction in city facility fees for events held in Salem parks after city councilors tweaked an earlier policy that gave the council discretion to approve larger waivers.

The change, approved Monday night, means city councilors won’t be in the business of voting on individual event fee waivers, instead leaving such decisions to city employees based on a standard policy. Councilors previously had discretion to waive all or most of an event’s fees.

“You had to come to council and we had to make a decision and really only those who had access to a city councilor could really do it and we didn’t have any criteria,” Council President Chris Hoy told Salem Reporter, speaking about the prior policy.

The new policy is intended to make decisions more fair across organizations while allowing the city to recoup costs for park maintenance and services associated with events.

Nonprofit organizations are the primary organizers of events in city parks, according to a February report from the city attorney presented to the council. In 2019, the last “normal” year of operations before the pandemic, the city processed permits for about 500 events, 350 of which were organized by 130 different nonprofit organizations, the report said.

Fee reductions apply for facility use fees —- the amount the city charges to reserve a specific stage, picnic shelter or other venue in a city park, which are set in the city’s master fee schedule. Those fees vary substantially depending on the park and facility, from $32 per hour for many picnic shelters and sites, to $1,232 per day for commercial use of the Riverfront Park amphitheater.

Under the new policy, the 20% standard fee reduction would also apply to events put on by neighborhood organizations after Hoy made an amendment that councilors approved unanimously. Public meetings held in parks and informal gatherings like picnics where no facilities are reserved aren’t subject to fees.

Councilor Jackie Leung abstained from votes on the policy, citing a conflict of interest, and councilors Vanessa Nordyke and Virginia Stapleton were absent.

Fee waivers don’t apply to other permits such as those for selling alcohol or food, or sound amplification for concerts.

But the changes also mean some nonprofit organizations will pay more to hold events that previously had the full cost of using city facilities waived.

That drew concern from members of the West Salem Lions Club, which has put on a free concert series for decades at West Salem Park and raised club money to construct a permanent roof on the stage in the 1990s. This year’s concert series is ongoing through July.

“To encourage more of this type of fantastic volunteer efforts in the future, it should be recognized and thanked by a small gesture of waiving the park use fees so these groups can provide wonderful events/activities for the community,” club leaders Celia and Craig Urbani said in their written testimony.

Craig Urbani, who chairs the concert series, said this year the city of Salem charged the club $965 for a four-concert series, up from $311.50 for a six-concert series in 2019, the last time concerts were held. The increase was in part because the city is holding the 2022 series as four separate events and had previously considered the series as one event, Urbani said.

The club had applied for a fee waiver which was scheduled to be considered by the council Monday, but instead councilors put forward the fee waiver policy changes.

Urbani and other club members submitted public testimony asking the council to reconsider the policy, noting that any club funds spent on city fees would be taken from the club budget, the majority of which goes toward providing eyeglasses and hearing aids to low-income people.

They also noted the city’s agreement with the Rotary Club of Salem allowing the club to use Riverfront Park for free five days per year as part of the donation agreement for the Gerry Frank | Salem Rotary Amphitheater, which the club built and donated to the city.

To address the concern, Hoy made a motion directing city employees to work with the Lions Club to draft a similar agreement allowing the organization to use the park at lower cost in recognition of their contributions to capital improvements. Councilors also approved that motion unanimously.

Hoy said the council’s intent is that other nonprofits who have made improvements at local parks could also seek special agreements with the city.

“If they put in the sweat equity, it just makes sense they’re able to utilize the venue for an event,” he said. “It relieves costs from the city so it’s a win-win.”

Following the council meeting, Craig Urbani told Salem Reporter he wanted to have the club reach an agreement with the city before commenting further on the fee changes.

The club’s next concert is scheduled for Thursday evening at 6:30 p.m. at West Salem Park on Northwest Rosemont Avenue. More information and a schedule is available on the club’s Facebook page.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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