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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 evaluation 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.”