SEASIDE - Sometimes, it pays to complain.

The Oregon Parks and Recreation Department will refund a $7,200 beach user fee it charged to the Seaside Chamber of Commerce after last year's Hood-to-Coast Relay.

The check will be sent within a week to the Seaside Chamber Community Foundation to benefit local nonprofit organizations.

In addition, any future fees will be waived as long as the money the chamber collects from selling items on the beach is used for "charitable purposes," said state parks Director Tim Wood.

The decision to refund the money came after a story appeared in The Daily Astorian last week.

While Chamber Director Al Smiles still has a few concerns about the parks department's user fee, he is happy to have the money back.

"For us it's a great opportunity to put funds into the foundation so it will get some recognition, and it makes it nice and tidy for the parks department," Smiles said.

The chamber was forced to pay the fee - which represents 10 percent of its gross beer sales - for the first time in the 17 years it has sold beer during the Hood-to-Coast Relay. It also has never had to pay a user fee for the T-shirts and other items it sells at the annual volleyball tournament held on the beach.

Although a state parks department rule requiring vendors to pay 10 percent of gross sales every time they use the beach or a state park has been in effect since 1992, the fees were waived for the Seaside Chamber and other nonprofit groups until last year. That's when a parks employee noticed that only 501(c)3 charities are allowed the waiver.

The chamber is a 501(c)6 organization, recognized by the Internal Revenue Service as a nonprofit - but not a charitable - organization.

Still, said Smiles, profits from the sales are distributed to organizations that help children and support local events.

Chris Havel, spokesman for the state Parks and Recreation Department, said the state was "stretching the rule to make it work" by refunding the money to the Seaside Chamber.

"We don't want to cause a problem here," Havel said. "We will get a waiver taken care of for 2010. We just need to know the money is going to go to bona fide charities."

Parks officials have invited Smiles to be part of an advisory committee that will review the rule and recommend changes to the state Parks and Recreation Commission. The committee will include nonprofits that conduct events in state parks and on the beach, commercial vendors and those who are concerned about protecting the parks during and after events.

When the chamber received the bill for the user charge last summer, Smiles complained to the parks department that no other nonprofit organization had to pay it. He asked why the Seaside Chamber had been charged.

A list of those charged and not charged shows that the Lincoln City Visitor & Information Bureau and Lincoln City's Backpack Food Program of Business for Excellence in Youth didn't pay because of "nonprofit status for nonprofit purposes."

In addition, the Cannon Beach Chamber of Commerce, Christian Surfers of Lincoln City and Cape Kiwanda Longboard also paid no fees because no sales were made on the beach.

However, the Hood-to-Coast Relay paid $11,128 to the state parks last year. The organization donates $17,000 annually to the city of Seaside's parks and recreation department, which has used the money to pay for playground equipment at Cartwright Park.

Nine vendors at the annual volleyball tournament in Seaside also paid $1, 013 in total.

Havel said that at the time, "all of the chambers were on the cusp of transition" and would have been charged eventually.

"The plan was to charge all of the chambers," Havel said. "Some paid and some didn't, depending on the date of their event."

Smiles talked to the state Parks and Recreation Commission, to state Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, and state Rep. Debbie Boone, D-Cannon Beach, about the problem. But after feeling he had not been heard, he began urging local businesses to send letters to Johnson and Boone and state parks officials.

He said he is happy the chamber will receive a refund, but he is concerned about what charges the state parks commission might impose to replace the user charge. Businesses, he added, shouldn't be required to pay what he calls a "sales tax." either, since many of them also support local events and organizations.

"I still think they (state parks) shouldn't be taking money away from businesses," Smiles added. "I don't feel that is right either."


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