In East St. Louis, the mayor said churches and nonprofits had never previously been charged a fee for fire safety inspections “because typically churches don’t pay taxes.”
“We didn’t want to tax the churches; we’re still not,” he said. “It’s a fee to recoup our costs for providing safety and services to the churches.”
At the meeting, the mayor allowed pastors to vent their frustrations.
“Why you want to tax God’s house?” one pastor boomed at Parks. “Churches are struggling. This is a low blow.”
“I see the condition of the city and it hurts my heart,” said yet another. “But to come after the church — that’s not right.”
Then Parks unveiled what he called “a solution”: The ordinance would be revised to allow churches and nonprofits to self-inspect their buildings.
Pastors could elect not to pay the city fee, but would still have to hire their own certified inspector and provide annual documentation to the city that their buildings were safe. Their first inspection, he told them, would have to be completed no later than June 30.
“If you don’t want to pay, don’t pay,” Parks told the pastors. “But one thing we can’t get away from is that churches and all buildings need to be inspected annually.”
A pastor asked how much it would cost to train a member of his congregation to get the proper building inspection certification. Somewhere between $500 and $1,000, he was told. But even such inspections would not satisfy safety standards, Fire Chief Jason Blackmon told the pastor.
“I didn’t want to say this earlier,” Parks told the pastors. “But it’s so much easier to just have the city do it.”
The council members seemed wounded by some of the barbs thrown their way.
“I’m getting the feeling that people don’t think we pray,” said Councilwoman Emeka Jackson-Hicks. “I pray. And I take it personal when we’re assassinated like this. We are the flock and we desire care, too.”
The mayor insisted the fee is not a money grab. He said the best-case scenario is that all 140 churches pay $100 for a total of $14,000.
“That doesn’t even pay one person’s salary,” he said. “It’s not about the money. It’s about the safety.”
The council adopted the mayor’s compromise and moved the pastors’ first deadline to Sept. 30.
(Tim Townsend writes for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.)
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