When Mount Airy Town Councilman John Woodhull told his colleagues about the town's little-known, decades-old practice of providing free water to local churches, he expected a couple minutes of discussion, maybe some laughter, and then an end to the custom.
Water usage is a big concern in the town, and giving it away, Woodhull said, sends the wrong message.
But in January, the council voted to go forward with what appears to be an unusual custom.
And last night, after a lengthy debate, the panel unanimously decided to postpone voting on a resolution to spell out the exemptions for churches and other nonprofit organizations so that the town's water and sewer commission can weigh in on the practice. That was followed by a 3-2 vote to apply the proposed guidelines to the currently exempt churches in the meantime.
Supporters of the practice, which include Council President David Pyatt and members Wendi Peters and Peter R. Helt, see it as a nod to history and the public service the handful of churches perform. Pastors at Calvary United Methodist Church and St. James' Episcopal, which Pyatt attends, said they offer such services as renting space in their buildings or hosting some nonprofits for free, such as the community food bank and Scout events.
"We're grateful that the town over the years has provided us water at no cost, and we'd be pleased to continue to receive that. ... It's not unusual for a town to want to provide a very small token of support for community organizations," said the Rev. Dennis Yocum at Calvary. "If they change their mind, that's OK, too."
"They really pull their share of the freight," Pyatt said of the churches.
But Woodhull, the council liaison to the water and sewer commission, and Councilman Gary Nelson still question the idea.
"The intention, at one time, I'm sure was very good," Nelson said in an interview. But "the world has changed. ... It's just not a fair policy for the people of the town."
Both say that the policy violates the separation of church and state. Woodhull also questions the rationale of such a policy in a time when water usage is an issue in the town and throughout the county.
The town has been ordered to stop new construction or find additional water, Woodhull said, because it has permitted more development than it is allowed to pump water for.
"We're doing a lot to foster conservation," Woodhull said, adding that providing free water does little to encourage people to value the resource.
The resolution aims "to establish criteria for granting such requests in the future to ensure equal treatment," while acknowledging the town's historic exemptions, which include the volunteer fire company.
Owners of an exempt property - operated by a "non-profit entity" - must: provide a public service at the site; not exceed an average water use of 20,000 gallons per quarter; agree to use water conservation items provided by the town; and cooperate in conservation planning. The exemption also cannot result in rate increases, or negatively affect other water and sewer users - a concern that Nelson and Woodhull have expressed.
While no one is certain what prompted the practice or when it began, it could have started when the town's public water system was installed in the mid-1920s, Mayor Frank Johnson said. Town officials have also found a reference to water exemptions for an Episcopal church in town records from 1952. Although several of Carroll County's municipalities exempt their fire companies from water charges, none has a similar policy for churches.
"This is something to do with the unique history of Mount Airy," Johnson said.
Johnson described the dollar amount in question as "relatively small." It was recently as low as about $48 in one quarter for the lowest user and about $375 for the highest, according to Marsha Zimmerman, the town's water and sewer administrative assistant.
The town's lawyers and legal scholars say that the policy does not violate the Constitution.
The Supreme Court has held that tax exemptions for religious organizations, while not mandatory, are constitutional, said Mark Graber, a professor of law and government for the University of Maryland School of Law.
The most common exemptions are property and sales taxes, said Howard Friedman, professor of law emeritus at the University of Toledo College of Law, who said he has not come across a policy like Mount Airy's.