Council discusses free use of civic center

By ED HOWELL, Daily Mountain Eagle
Posted 2/11/18

Mayor David O’Mary recently indicated a desire to limit groups wanting to use the Jasper Civic Center for free, noting the city still owes for the building and is not making up for its cost with rentals.

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Council discusses free use of civic center


Mayor David O’Mary recently indicated a desire to limit groups wanting to use the Jasper Civic Center for free, noting the city still owes for the building and is not making up for its cost with rentals.

Parks and Recreation Director Peter Cosmiano approached the council at its most recent work session, asking about a request from a diabetes education specialist to use a room in the civic center to use for a free diabetes education class. “She claims there are not any classes like that going on now,” he said.

While the Denmark-based company she works for, Novo Nordisk, is a for-profit healthcare business, her program might be enough reason to not charge her. She already works with local physicians, he said.

Council member Gary Cowen pointed out that non-profits are not charged to use rooms in the civic center. City Attorney Russ Robertson said if the city wants to sponsor a program, then city property can be used for that.

“It would be a pretty curvy line from a seminar educating diabetes patients to that company making money,” he said. “I don’t think it is a private benefit. If the council determines it is a public benefit to educate the citizens, that determination would be unassailed by anyone.”

O’Mary, while he said he is for the program, said, “The challenge, it seems to me from the calls I had last week, is that everybody seems to want the building for free. That really makes it difficult.” 

He went on to say, “Last year, it cost us $100,000 over and above what we took in rents to run that.” 

Council member Danny Gambrell questioned how one makes a distinction in this case.

Robertson said it is determined by the council.

“I guess what you look at, is what is the difference in an open-to-the-public meeting to educate on diabetes, or to give every kid a backpack, or something we have approved in the past, versus something that is still good but only serves a limited group, such as the RAs at the church having a meeting,” he said. “There is nothing wrong with that. That group helps the city generally. So why is that different. I think you look at the scope of the people affected.” 

Robertson said O’Mary makes a good point in the choosing of the facility.

“They are not wanting to use Gamble Park. They are wanting to use our most expensive asset,” he said to the council. “You might consider even good requests differently, depending on what facility they want to use. That’s certainly within the council’s — I think everybody ought to be treated the same about that. I think that’s your job.”

He said the good news is that he has never heard a court ruling overturning a city’s determination of public purpose.

Cosmiano said the department’s process, which City Engineer Joe Matthews has also sided with, is that everyone is charged unless one successfully approaches the city council or mayor to be exempted. “We don’t really figure out who is profit or non-profit because we came into a situation where someone wanted to use it for good,” he said. “They wanted to charge to get in, and the only people it was benefitting was a limited group.”

Council member Sonny Posey said free use should be restricted to the city or its various departments. “Free won’t make those note payments,” he said.

Robertson said the city could consider that if a group wants a free facility, it could use other city meeting areas such as Swann Gym, the Natatorium or the Smith Center. Posey said he feels those facilities should be restricted in terms of free use.

However, the mayor said the city has a note payment on the civic center while it doesn’t on the other facilities.

Cosmiano said the diabetes meeting could be moved to another facility, such as the Natatorium, as they might work better anyway. Many times that happens in other cases, which avoids the discussion of a rental fee.

Cowen recommended that, saying citizens would still get the same educational benefit.