Charlottesville Churches Voice Concerns Over Stormwater Fee - NBC29 WVIR Charlottesville, VA News, Sports and Weather

Charlottesville Churches Voice Concerns Over Stormwater Fee

Posted: Updated: Feb 17, 2013 08:28 PM

Churches in Charlottesville are voicing concerns about how much damage the city's stormwater fee will do to their congregations.  They want Charlottesville City Council to reconsider the purpose of their sanctuaries, not just the amount of runoff their surfaces produce.

First Baptist Church and First Presbyterian Church along Park Street say the fee will make their efforts to serve their congregations and the community a lot more difficult.

Representatives from both churches in Charlottesville say the city's stormwater fee is unfair for tax-exempt groups like theirs.

Lewis Martin with First Baptist Church said, "We've never had to pay tax before, and this of course is a user fee that's permitted by state enabling act, but it looks, smells, and sounds an awful lot like a tax because we're talking about paying for essential city infrastructure."

"The reason that churches are tax exempt is one to keep government out of churches and two because we provide services that would otherwise be paid for by tax dollars," said Jim Snead with First Presbyterian Church.

Martin calculated First Baptist Church's stormwater fee using Charlottesville's webGIS tool and found the potential stormwater utility annual fee range to be between $6,624 and $13,248.  Property owner's fees were adjusted down after the first reading of the stormwater ordinance, so Martin says First Baptist Church's fee comes to $7,934.40 a year for the first three years.

"That is a fairly significant amount if you look at our church budget line items for our benevolent offerings," he said. "We run for instance a soup kitchen and in 2008, we provided the soup kitchen every Friday for 52 weeks of the year at the cost of about $8,900.  That would almost eliminate our budget for the soup kitchen for instance."

Snead says First Presbyterian Church's stormwater fee tab totals around $3,000 in the first year and increases to about $5,000 by the third year.  He explains that Charlottesville City Council had two options to deal with the stormwater runoff issue – issuing a user utility fee or raising property taxes.

Charlottesville's Water Resources Protection Program (WRPP) Advisory Committee produced a summary report last November highlighting how these two methods were used in other parts of the state.  The report summarized the Tidewater model (creating a user utility fee) and the northern Virginia model (using property taxes from the general fund). 

Representatives from both Charlottesville churches called assistant city and county attorneys in northern Virginia, responsible for matters pertaining to the jurisdictions' stormwater management issues, to ask about their reasoning to go with the latter method.  The attorneys said those area governments chose to pay for stormwater runoff with property taxes because they deemed it simple and fair. 

Charlottesville City Councilor Kristin Szakos disagrees and supports the utility fee method.  She said, "Our choices are really raising everybody's taxes or doing it by how much people use, and I think this is a fairer way of doing it."

Szakos says the infrastructure to handle stormwater runoff is necessary, and the churches' buildings and parking lots produce runoff that contributes to the need.

"They are part of the reason we need that infrastructure because they build buildings and parking lots - which is great," she said.  "They do great services, but those things require infrastructure for runoff water and so if they're using those services and making us need them, I think it's only fair that they should be helping to pay for them."

Szakos acknowledged First Baptist Church has done stormwater mitigation on their property.  According to the ordinance, the church would then be eligible for a full or partial waiver.  Martin says the credit for First Baptist Church is capped at 40 percent, which does not make sense for the amount runoff they contain. 

"I'm concerned if we got a stormwater detention facility here that contains - according to my facilities manager - almost all the runoff, why do we get a cap?  Why do we have to pay at minimum 60 percent of the assessment based on our impervious surfaces?" asked Martin.

The churches also have lingering questions about what analysis has been done to determine this fee was the best solution and how stormwater will really be measured.  They ultimately say the additional cost will hurt the community the most.

"Is it fair to have the homeless, the hungry, the addicted pay for this?  Because that's who they're talking about.  They're not talking about fair for the churches.  It's what the churches do," Snead said.

Charlottesville City Council is expected to vote on the stormwater ordinance at its meeting Tuesday.  The churches say they want another public hearing before a decision is made to impose the fees.

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