Religious groups pushing for city stormwater fee reduction

Committee OKs 83 percent cut as contentious debate continues

June 11, 2013|By Scott Calvert, The Baltimore Sun

The two Catholic parishes led by the Rev. Robert Wojtek could pay more than $6,000 in new city stormwater fees later this year — an amount equal to an entire Sunday collection at his Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Highlandtown.

To Wojtek, that means limiting the parishes' ability to provide services, such as letting community groups use the Highlandtown church hall at minimal cost or giving out food at the pantry behind St. Michael and St. Patrick Church in Upper Fells Point.

"One way or another, it's coming down to the bottom line," he said. More broadly, he worries that the fees will pinch charitable organizations across the city. "Look at all the nonprofits, look at all the churches — the good that's done."

As the City Council works to finalize Baltimore's stormwater fee program by July 1, anxious churches and other religious nonprofits have pressed for a special low rate in recognition of their contributions to the city. They point to Baltimore County, which has enacted a steep discount for nonprofits.

On Tuesday, a City Council committee approved an 83 percent reduction for religious nonprofits, which would give them a rate well below other Baltimore property owners. At that proposed rate, the bill would be about $1,000 a year for Wojtek's parishes.

"We absolutely applaud them for recognizing that the rate needed to be lowered," said Cailey Locklair, director of government relations at the Baltimore Jewish Council.

But the issue is far from settled. Several City Council members strongly oppose giving tax-exempt groups, religious or otherwise, preferential treatment. They hope to cut the rate for all property owners below the Rawlings-Blake administration's proposed level, but do not want a lower tier for charities.

"We can't keep letting nonprofits off the hook totally, at the expense of the people in Baltimore who are paying the taxes," said Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, noting that nonprofits are already exempt from property taxes.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's administration, which is drawing up stormwater fee regulations while the council hammers out legislation, has not proposed a break for nonprofits.

"Everybody's using the [stormwater] system, so everybody has a responsibility to participate in paying for the cost of the system," said mayoral spokesman Ryan O'Doherty. He said the mayor wants to make sure the fee is "not overly burdensome to residents" and noted that the council committee had proposed reducing their fee as well.

Most other area localities will give religious groups a break in the new fees. Harford County is charging nonprofits a flat $125 a year, and just $12.50 the first year. Anne Arundel County is putting the yearly fee at just $1 for religious nonprofits. Howard County has decided to delay billing any tax-exempt groups for several months while officials draft hardship provisions. Carroll County hasn't set its rates.

The fee, dubbed a "rain tax" by critics, is meant to combat pollution that results when rainwater runs off buildings, pavement and roads and eventually flows into the Chesapeake Bay.

The General Assembly has required 10 local governments, including the city and Baltimore, Howard, Anne Arundel, Carroll and Harford counties, to establish a stormwater program with dedicated fees. The money will pay for upgrading old pipes and equipment, along with environmental projects such as creating wetlands to trap water-borne nutrients that harm the bay.

Local governments were given freedom to shape their programs, including the determination of fees, credits and exemptions. Under fees proposed by the city's Department of Public Works, Baltimore homeowners would pay $48 to $144 per year, depending on lot size.

All other property owners would be charged $72 a year per 1,050 square feet of "impervious surface," such as roofs, driveways and parking lots. That is far higher than in surrounding counties. All property owners could get credits by taking steps to reduce runoff. For homeowners and owners of smaller nonresidential sites, that could include taking part in tree plantings and stream cleanups.

The council committee voted Tuesday to reduce those fees. For homeowners, the new range would be $40 to $120 a year. The committee also approved a cap meant to help businesses avoid what some have called exorbitant fees; it would limit fees to 20 percent of an owner's annual property tax bill.

Under the various committee-approved amendments, Baltimore would take in about $24 million a year from the fees — down from an expected $30 million.

The city's major nonprofit institutions — hospitals and universities — have largely not taken public stands in the debate.

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