Council enacts stormwater utility fee

The Charlottesville City Council voted 4-1 Tuesday to enact a utility fee on all property owners despite a last-minute campaign from representatives of several churches who argued that it is unfair. The fee is to raise additional money to improve the city’s stormwater infrastructure.

State law prohibits localities from taxing church real estate, but the stormwater fee would apply to all property owners in the city. Six percent of the billable properties in the city are owned by non-profits, including churches.
“When you take the assets of the church, you affect the hungry, the homeless, the addicted and the underprivileged in general,” said Jim Snead of First Presbyterian Church.
Ray Jones, a tax attorney and pastor of Faith Baptist church, said churches are not income producers and should be treated differently because of the services they provide to the community.
“Your tax charge should come out of the 90 percent of my income, not the 10 percent that is tithed and belongs to the Lord,” Jones said. “[The city should] tax property owners like me. I welcome your tax.” 
Beginning Jan. 1, 2014, property owners will be billed  twice-yearly on a monthly charge of $ per 500 square feet of impervious surface on a site. The money will allow the city to increase funding for its water resources protection program from $945,000 a year to more than $2.5 million.
“We don’t currently have a long-term plan to deal with these challenges and in part that’s because there has not historically been consistent or appropriate funding to plan, design, or 
implement capital projects to address these drivers,” said Kristel Riddervold, the city’s environmental administrator.
Riddervold asked council to enact the fee in 2009, but there was not support to move forward. However, council agreed then to raise the amount of funding for stormwater projects.
Last summer, city officials gave Riddervold permission to revisit the fee and an advisory committee was formed to study potential rates.
Councilor Dave Norris, who voted against the proposal, said the city already was in the process of increasing funding for stormwater programs.
“The reality is, we have taken substantial action in the last five years,” Norris said. “We’ve increased funding from a couple hundred thousand a year to $900,000 a year. We’re actively monitoring our waterways. We’re investing in best management practices.”
Robbi Savage of the Rivanna Conservation Society stood to defend the fee.
“We believe it’s the most fair and most equitable of the various alternatives that were considered by the advisory committee,” Savage said.  “Our schools, our government buildings, our shopping centers, and houses of worship may have extensive parking lots and these lots are almost always made of impervious surfaces.”
However, Dan McCreight of First Baptist Church said he was concerned that the ordinance did not provide enough incentives for his congregation to invest in improvements to reduce the amount of stormwater that leaves the property.
“It also doesn’t recognize that many of us have already done some things. [First Baptist] has a dry retention pond where over 90 percent of our water is captured,” McCreight said. He said improving that pond to a biofilter would cost $25,000, a price the church cannot afford.
Mayor Satyendra Huja asked City Attorney Craig Brown if it were possible under state code to waive the charge for non-profits.
“In my opinion, the state enabling legislation is pretty clear about the categories of property that can be entitled to a partial credit, but it does not authorize an exemption for non-profit property owners,” Brown said.
Huja asked if it were possible for the city to provide grants to churches for them to pay the fee.
“The city under state law is precluded from making donations, grants or contributions by organizations controlled by churches or sectarian societies,” Brown said. However, the Salvation Army and the YMCA are exceptions.
City Councilor Kristin Szakos pointed out that churches already enjoy the benefits of being connected to roads paid for by city taxes.
“This is like water and sewer,” Szakos said. “We’re looking at a reasonable way of measuring how much people are using the infrastructure and asking them to pay for it.”
Norris said the fee was going to be enacted at a time when schools are having to make tough budget cuts.
“We are holding the line on other services and yet we are about to increase funding for stormwater improvements by 270 percent,” Norris said. “That troubles me.”
Riddervold said staff is required to brief Council in the future on a credit policy as well as an assistance program for low-income homeowners.