MARQUETTE - In taking swift action this week, the Marquette County Board became inadvertently caught in the middle of an ongoing dispute between the health department and a local American Legion post over the grilling of hot dogs and other food at the baseball park.
The board voted unanimously to ask Marquette County Health Department Director Fred Benzie to try to "cut through the paperwork" for American Legion Post 44 in its quest to grill hot dogs, bratwursts and hamburgers at its Blues and Reds baseball games in Marquette.
However, Benzie - who did not attend the meeting - said the board action was taken predicated on an assumption it had heard all the facts presented.
American Legion baseball volunteer Kelly Shaw is seen working in the concession stand at Gerard Haley Memorial Field, home of the Marquette Blues and Reds, in Marquette. American Legion Post 44 in Marquette, which sponsors the teams, and the Marquette County Health Department have had a long-running dispute over licensing of the concession stand. (Journal file photo)
Michael Trickey, a past president of the Legion post who oversees the baseball program, sought the board's help during the public comment portion of the panel's meeting Tuesday night.
"I've encountered a problem with the Marquette County Health Department and some confusion over what the rules of engagement are for a concession stand," Trickey said.
The health department is requiring the Legion to purchase a food license to cook food at the Gerald Haley Memorial Field in north Marquette.
Trickey said the Legion buys hot dogs and hamburgers premade and professionally wrapped by butchers. The food is then taken to the concession stand and cooked to order on a gas grill.
"We keep them warm right there in a spot, they're fresh," Trickey said. "And we've been doing this for 35 years at least. We've never had a license, but now all of a sudden we're told you're going to have to have a license."
Trickey said the requirement means applying 30 days in advance for a two-week license costing $50, plus state surcharge. Any inspection violations would result in additional fees.
Trickey said the Legion would like an alternative to be offered. He said the weather-dependent baseball season typically lasts from April through the end of July. A yearlong license costs $350.
"American Legion Post 44 sends people to school - because we do have dinners (at the Legion hall) - to get folks trained and we pay our annual license, we feel like we shouldn't have to pay for another license," Trickey said. "We're at an impasse. We have stopped cooking hot dogs at the ball field. All those years we've never had a complaint, anyone sick, any problems whatsoever."
Trickey said he's tried talking to the health department inspectors, but he's gotten nowhere.
Benzie said Trickey's contention a food license was only recently required is false and his department has a decade-long history of offering reasonable alternatives available under the law to the Legion post.
"We try very hard to treat all people the same," Benzie said. "They want to be treated differently from the other booster clubs we have licensed."
Additional concession stands where food licenses are in place include those operated at Westwood, Negaunee and Marquette schools and at Mattson Lower Harbor Park, Presque Isle Park and Van Riper State Park.
"I can't allow him to be the outlier," Benzie said of Trickey. "The law doesn't allow them to be treated differently."
Benzie said if the Legion wants to grill at the ballpark, it needs a license.
Trickey said the Legion has invested about $125,000 in Haley Field over four years. During that time, the Legion has used the concession stand to sell packaged and grilled food as a small fundraiser, including water, sports drinks and coffee.
The money raised is used to help defray the $9,000 to $11,000 annual cost for the Legion's two baseball teams.
"It's an unfunded liability for the American Legion," Trickey said. "So we raise the money any way we can. We do get some gifts and we charge player fees."
Trickey said health department literature states exemptions from the food license requirement are allowed for non-profit fundraisers, but isn't clear on defining what constitutes a fundraiser.
"Even though we have many home games, we consider those fundraisers and that's my argument," Trickey said. "I don't feel we should buy another license."
Benzie said the Legion has been previously offered a fundraiser exemption, but the post doesn't want to comply with its conditions. A ballpark license is not required if the food is grilled at either the Legion's licensed kitchen or at home and then kept hot and brought to the ballpark to sell.
Trickey asked the board if it could talk with the health department and get a ruling and some help.
"And ask them if they could please let us just play baseball and have some hot dogs and brats," he said.
Commissioner Deborah Pellow said Benzie has been working with state Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, on changing the law to allow an exception for hot dogs.
"I know there are some other non-profits that have been having some problems with other places that sell hot dogs," Pellow said. "I don't know where that's at right now, but I know he (Benzie) has put that request in through Senator Casperson."
Pellow said maybe there's some help coming on that level.
"Personally, I think you could leave a hot dog outside for many days and you could still eat the darn thing, right," Pellow said.
Benzie said in preliminary talks in Lansing, an exemption for hot dogs is receiving a lukewarm reception from the Michigan Department of Agriculture.
Benzie said even if a hot dog exemption is eventually approved by the Legislature, the Legion would want hamburgers and bratwursts to be included, too, provisions more unlikely to ever gain support.
The $50 license fee doesn't cover the health department costs, including those for personnel, of providing the food license on-site as required by law, Benzie said.
Benzie said if a potential solution of reducing or eliminating the license fees for booster clubs was proposed - with those fees paid instead by the county - that likely wouldn't be considered fair to licensed for-profit hot dog cart business operators.
Benzie said he intends to inform the board of additional information on the situation at or before its June 18 board meeting.
John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.