New Life Center in jeopardy

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 17, 2004

May close if it does not satisfy safety codes

By George Wacha

A church open now for some four years in Brantley could be in danger of closing, according to its pastor, David Mount. Mount has been building his flock for several years, and has fully-intended to maintain a private Christian school, but as he learned in May, his church faces closing for building code violations.

&uot;In May of this year I called the Alabama State Fire Marshal’s office, requesting information,&uot; Mount said. &uot;I spoke to the Assistant Fire Marshal, Capt. Ed Paulk. I requested that he send me information regarding building safety codes, after I had been in conversation with the Alabama Department of Human Resources regarding our possible addition of a daycare center. They suggested contacting the Fire Marshal.&uot;

Mount said the church had been considering purchasing a house behind the church, which is located in the old Godwin building on South Main Street, to be remodeled into a church-based daycare facility.

&uot;The first time I had ever heard of the New Life Center was when Pastor Mount called me to inquire about if they would have to comply with all the rules of the safety code to put in a daycare center,&uot; Capt. Paulk said via telephone on Tuesday. &uot;I told him that as much as I knew myself that we needed more faith-based schools and daycare centers, we also had to make sure that they were safe for everyone concerned.&uot;

Paulk explained that any place where people enter or congregate must meet minimum safety standards.

&uot;These laws are not in place to close places down, they are there to make sure that people are safe,&uot; Paulk said. &uot;I would never want to just close down a church – Heaven knows we need more churches, Christian schools and daycares, but in the event they did not comply with the law, we would have to do our jobs.&uot;

Mount said in another conversation, he was under the impression that his church would be closed down.

&uot;In a later conversation with Paulk in May, he told me that it looked like he was going to have to close our doors,&uot; Mount said. &uot;He told me that someone had complained about us running a church and school in a building that did not meet state fire codes.

&uot;He told me, ‘you are going to have to close the church until you bring the facility up to Fire Code specifications,’ and I though he was joking. I soon realized that he was serious,&uot; Mount said. &uot;I told him that we have been open for four years, and have spent approximately $20,000 per year on renovations to improve, without the first visit from a State Fire Marshal. I asked him to send me the code – I told him I didn’t want to go to prison if someone were to get hurt because of a fire or other emergency in the church.&uot;

Mount did not receive the code, but rather was referred in another direction.

&uot;He (Paulk) said he couldn’t get it, that I would have to use an architectural firm to obtain the specifications,&uot; Mount said. &uot;That’s when I got serious. I talked to a team of lawyers, the ‘Christian Law Association,’ which is based in Tampa, Fla., and assists churches at no cost. They agreed that I would have to get an architectural firm. We found that there were several, but their costs are very high.&uot;

&uot;I told Pastor Mount exactly what the law requires me to tell him, and that is how he can come into compliance with building codes, but that must come through architects,&uot; Paulk said. &uot;Compliance is certainly the right thing to do, and the Christian thing to do. I am quite sure that it is what Pastor Mount wants to do as well.&uot;

Paulk explained that the law is specific with regard to how buildings can be brought into compliance with code.

&uot;A church, or any other place of gathering for that matter, must obtain the service of a recognized and certified architectural firm – people trained to ensure buildings are safe, and that includes exits that are marked and functioned specifically, and other various features of building construction,&uot; Paulk said. &uot;I explained that to Pastor Mount in each of my conversations with him. We do not have the capabilities to tell people how to build a building. All we can do is enforce the specifically outlined laws.&uot;

Paulk again emphasized that he never received any complaint about the church and building codes.

&uot;Again, I never knew about it even being a church until he called me and said they had a church in a building that used to be a furniture store,&uot; Paulk said. &uot;Every conversation I have had about New Life Center has been with Pastor Mount, except for the New Life congregation members that have called to ask me if I was going to close it down. I told them the same thing, that I would not want to close down a church, because we certainly need more of them, but if they didn’t comply with the laws set out by the State to ensure safety for all of the building’s occupants, they would have to be shut down.&uot;

Mount said the first architectural firm he contacted, based in Montgomery, told him they would charge a minimum of $2,000, for just one visit to the church.

&uot;We contacted another firm, with what I prefer to call my ‘Kingdom Connection’ – the firm of Milner and Maye, out of Dothan,&uot; Mount said. &uot;They are Christian architects, and they have thus far done their part entirely free.&uot;

Mount said some examples of required renovation included outward-swinging exit doors, lighted exit signs, security lighting inside that comes on during a power failure, and also reinforcements in the walls.

&uot;We stripped out all of the paneling, because the code stated that if the building would have occupants younger than 19 years, there could be no wooden paneling in the building,&uot; he said. &uot;We resurfaced all of the walls, which are 16-inches thick in brick.&uot;

Mount said that while he was comfortable with conforming to the law, he did not like the way he found out about it.

&uot;I just didn’t like the way he put it, that he would force us to close,&uot; Mount said. &uot;I told him that we were in Montgomery during the 10 Commandments proceedings, and I told him I wanted the State to get out of my church’s business.&uot;

The congregation at New Life Center includes 80-85 people during Sunday services, and has 65 registered members.

&uot;Just last Sunday we had 92 people in church during Sunday service,&uot; Mount said. &uot;We have a fantastic teen ministry program here, and a great food bank that feeds approximately 15-200 people per month, and it is growing all the time.&uot;

Along with the adult, teen and youth programs, the church operates a small – but growing – private Christian school, Heritage Christian Academy.

&uot;Our school right now has 17 fulltime students, and a list with more than 30 more potential students waiting to get in,&uot; Mount said. &uot;The school is definitely growing.

The school, according to Mount is accredited by a Christian Accreditation Association.

&uot;We are one step away from being a model school,&uot; he said. &uot;We tried to get into the Alabama Independent School Association (AISA), but before we can, we must have an athletic program. We have recently seen several people and businesses come together offering to help us get a sports program at Heritage Christian Academy.&uot;

Mount said his church’s school carries a high school diploma like any other upon completion of the curriculum.

&uot;Upon completion, the students receive a diploma, not a general equivalency diploma (GED), that is as good as any other school’s diploma,&uot; Mount said. &uot;Our first senior, Shekinah Bell, graduated two years ago, and is enrolled in the University of Illinois School of Nursing. They told her there that they would definitely accept a diploma from an Accelerated Christian Education program such as this.&uot;

Mount said the school teaches in paces.

&uot;We teach in paces, just like the public schools, and if our students choose to transfer into a public school, they would be even with their grade level peers,&uot; he said.

The school, which is in session from September until late May, carries credits like any other school.

There is, however, a light on the horizon for New Life Center.

&uot;Our architect called and said that they had taken our case out of the hands of the Fire Marshal’s office,&uot; Mount said. &uot;He said they had gotten us the time necessary to bring the building up to code specifications. He also said that they realized that we did not have a lot of money to work with, so it would take some time.&uot;

But New Life Center is not out of the woods yet.

&uot;The architect also said that there is still the danger that the Fire Marshal could take it back, especially if they wanted us to add an elevator,&uot; Mount said.

The building, three-stories tall, has a freight elevator that food and supplies can be moved form floor to floor on, but no one is allowed to ride it.

&uot;Our insurance will not cover people on the freight elevator, so we don’t allow anyone to ride it,&uot; he said.

While Capt. Paulk explained that no proceedings had been initiated to close New Life Center down, if it appeared that they (the Church) were not doing anything to come into compliance, the state would then have to begin proceedings.

Mount said his church is also prepared to meet the special needs of anyone that was handicapped.

&uot;We have added a ramp to the floor in our sanctuary to make it accessible by wheelchair,&uot; he said. &uot;We also have our teens that meet in the teen center one night each week, while our adult ministry is being conducted in the sanctuary. If we had a special needs situation, we could simply reschedule the teen ministry for another night, and allow them to use the sanctuary.&uot;