Church pastor not pleased with fee structure
BERLIN—The pastor of a Main Street church took issue with the way the town has implemented its stormwater management policy because it does not exempt churches. He called the fee the church has been charged for its covered surfaces a tax during a Sept. 23 meeting of the mayor and town council.
Rev. John Abent, pastor of the Faith Baptist Church, at 519 South Main St., challenged the town for billing his church for surfaces that are impervious to rain drainage and are thus deemed to contribute to runoff. He said he was “taken aback” at the church being charged because he considered it a property tax, which he said raised Constitutional issues regarding the separation of church and state. As a tax, he said the fee represented the potential “camel’s nose under the tent” that could set a precedent to tax the church further.
Mayor Gee Williams rejected Abent’s argument that the issue of church versus state had anything to do with the discussion. “It is a utility,” Williams said and described the new system as the town’s attempt to spread the cost burden of mitigating flooding in a way to make the solution affordable to everyone.
The church was initially assessed a stormwater utility fee of $475, based on a geographic information system that EA used to measure commercial properties for surfaces impervious to stormwater.
At the request of church representatives, town officials followed up with site visit. As a result of the on site uation the church’s gravel parking lot, which had originally been billed at a 100 percent impervious surface rate was split to 50 percent impervious surface rate and the fee was reassessed at $200, according to Water Resources Director Jane Kreiter.
The formula for stormwater utility rates on the town’s 290 commercial property are based on the square footage of impervious area—where water cannot penetrate, such as paved parking lots, which creates run off to the nearest pervious space, such as grass or pervious concrete. The surfaces are measured in equivalent residential units, which equate to each 2,100 square foot space of impervious cover within a property.
Abent also questioned the town’s authority to assess the fee. He said two years ago the church called town official to request permission for church members to clear a clogged ditch on the property, but were referred to state officials.
Moreover, Abent noted that when the church was built in **, a stormwater management system was required and built on the site. He told officials that churches and businesses that install and maintain stormwater management systems should be exempt from the fees. He decried the town’s action for what he called an “overreach to tax a blessing from God.” Abent said the fee would pose a financial burden for the church’s tight budget since it did not hold fundraisers and exists on tithes and offerings from its congregation.
Williams told Abent the town had a multi-million dollar flooding problem to fix. “If we exempted non-profits, churches and hospitals, the costs would be unbearable,” he said.
Williams told Abent the utility was created after hearing from an overwhelming majority of town residents who experienced property damage from stormwater runoff due to problems caused by rain storms exceeding the drainage system. “It’s not an issue that is unique to the Town of Berlin,” he said. “It is not a tax,” Williams added. He said the objective of the town council was to be “principled pragmatists.”