BELLEVILLE — An AIDS service organization asked a court to dismiss a city lawsuit that aims to stop the nonprofit's needle-exchange program.
A motion hearing for the case is at 8:30 a.m. Monday in Room 407 of the St. Clair County Building.
Bethany Place filed a response to the city's suit on March 12 and said the city of Belleville waited too long to complain that the needle-exchange program violates the city's zoning ordinance, according to court documents.
Bethany Place said it has operated a needle-exchange program since 2009 and the city is only now, four years later, complaining that the program is in violation.
"It is highly unfair and prejudicial to (Bethany Place) and those clients served by the needle-exchange program to now complain to this court that the program violates the zoning ordinance after so much time has passed," Bethany Place argues in its response to the city's suit.
Bethany Place also filed a counterclaim, asking that the city be forced to pay Bethany Place's attorney fees.
The city believes Bethany Place's needle-exchange program violates the type of operations allowed for that site per the city's zoning codes, according to the lawsuit filed Feb. 6.
"We didn't know for the longest time it's been going on," Mayor Mark Eckert said. "We had a complaint. We had to act on the complaint. ... When we researched the law (our attorney) felt like they had to get a variance."
The city wants to fine the agency $250 to $1,000 for each day it operates the program.
The city asked the agency in October to cease the program and go before the city's Zoning Board of Appeals. Bethany Place has not applied for a variance.
Bethany Place believes the city's zoning code allows for the operation of a needle-exchange program at 821 W. A St., an area zoned as a light-industry district.
The organization also believes the program was permitted by a use variance granted on June 15, 1998.
Mark Peebles, the attorney representing Bethany Place, stated in the organization's response that the needle exchange is a public health service "designed to stop the spread of HIV and AIDS."
Eckert previously said residents complained of finding needles in their yards, and police officers have witnessed drug use in front of the organization's building.
But in correspondence with the Illinois Department of Public Health, Bethany Place executive director Angela Barnes said Bethany Place has not received any calls from neighbors reporting discarded syringes. If notified, Bethany Place staff would clean up any dropped syringes and dispose of the items properly, she said.
The organization gives intravenous drug users sterile needles and provides other services to help prevent the spread of blood-transmitted diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C.
St. Clair County has some of the state's highest numbers of confirmed and new HIV/AIDS cases outside of Chicago.
Contact reporter Jacqueline Lee at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2655. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/BNDBelleville.