SIKESTON - A guilty verdict handed down Thursday by Judge Frank Marshall to the leaders of the New Hope Ministries and the Christians in Action for the violation of city ordinances has dealt a great blow to the two organizations.
CIA, a collaboration of churches and local organizations, has worked with New Hope Ministries during the past six months to provide housing for recovering addicts and victims of domestic abuse in Missouri and, in particular, the Sikeston area.
Investigation by local code enforcement officers on June 12 found that in three residences owned by Terry Teague of Sikeston and managed by Don Burnett, executive director of CIA, and two residencies owned by Larry White, pastor New Hope Ministries, those residing in the home were not listed on the tenancy application, which is a violation of city ordinances.
In addition, one of the homes was cited as a public nuisance violation due to a large pile of rubbish in the front yard.
Approximately two hours of debate and a closing statement by White, in which he claimed that sharing a home with a person in need is not a crime but instead the work of God, were not successful. The defendants were found guilty on all counts and charged $200 per violation in addition to court fees.
During testimony, Teague claimed ignorance to many of the problems faced with the paperwork.
"I didn't ask any questions as to who was living in a residency, as long as I received rent money. I left the paperwork up to my property manager, Don Burnett," said Teague.
Burnett maintained that the heads of household listed on the tenancy applications lived at the residency at the time of inspection. Any guest of the household should not be counted as a permanent resident, he said.
"Guests of the property owner are not my business, as long as nothing illegal is going on," testified Burnett.
Marshall concluded, however, that the homes were used to house the people in the CIA program and the people encountered at the homes were residing there on a permanent basis. Marshall said that although the morality of such an act is not an issue, the failure to submit up-to-date tenancy applications is clearly against city ordinances.
The trial not only cost the defendants, but the Division of Alcohol and Substance Abuse has temporarily cut the CIA's funding until the issue was resolved.
Teague and White have already sold the homes which they were renting.
"It is a shame," said Burnett. "In six months the CIA has become the second largest substance abuse support program in the state and now we will not be able to help as many people in need."
After the hearing, Burnett was vocal in his disapproval of the city's zero tolerance law, which states that residency violations will have a complaint filed immediately after it is found.
"It is almost like code enforcement has harassed us at every turn and stressed zero tolerance with us in particular," said Burnett.
White said in trial: "We are here to do the work of God. Sometimes we mess up a little, but I hope the court can have mercy on our ignorance to city ordinances."
Burnett and White's ministry services won't end. Plans are already in effect to rebuild CIA.
"Once we get reaccredited by the Division of Alcohol and Substance Abuse, we are going to move our office just outside of town," said Burnett. "We won't have to worry about city ordinances there and hopefully we can rebuild to the same strength."