Religious groups pushing for city stormwater fee reduction

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.

For example, the Johns Hopkins University and its medical institutions have not taken a position on the stormwater fee debate, said spokeswoman Tracey Reeves. Hopkins' annual tab would be several hundred thousand dollars at the rates proposed by the Department of Public Works, according to a city website.

Among religious groups, the Baltimore Jewish Council has been pushing an annual fee of $10 per 1,050 square feet — in line with Baltimore County's nonprofit rate and below the $12 per 1,050 square feet approved by the committee Tuesday.

"We want to be a part of this; we want to help," Locklair said. But she said the city's initial fee proposal was "detrimental" to its member organizations and that the money would come "out of the services that are currently provided to the city."

The Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore has been lobbying, too. Archbishop William E. Lori has personally contacted Rawlings-Blake, said Sean Caine, a spokesman for the archdiocese.

Caine said the fee as initially proposed would cost Catholic schools in the city $119,250 annually. It would cost Catholic Charities' programs $58,506, translating to 23,400 meals at Our Daily Bread, 120 people going through job readiness training or 2,300 bed-nights at the Christopher Place shelter for men. In addition, the 49 Catholic parishes in the city would owe several hundred thousand dollars.

After Tuesday's vote, Caine said he was pleased council members gave "special recognition to the contributions of religious nonprofits."

Few churches would face a bigger bill than Mount Pleasant Baptist in Northeast Baltimore. With its large structure and expansive parking lot, the church on Radecke Avenue would have to pay more than $20,000 a year under the Rawlings-Blake administration's proposal, according to the city website.

"It would certainly impact what we do to help the homeless, to help people in our community who have gas and electrical issues," said Bishop Clifford M. Johnson Jr. He said his church assists many people who would otherwise turn to the city for help.

City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke of Northeast Baltimore, who has advocated a 45 percent across-the-board fee reduction, said nonprofit groups deserve a break because of their services.

But some of her colleagues have expressed strong opposition.


City Councilman Carl Stokes said homeowners and businesses are overburdened by the city's highest-in-Maryland property tax rate, which nonprofits don't pay, as well as by steadily rising water bills. If nonprofits got a break on the stormwater fee, it would be "unfair to the average homeowner, unfair to the senior citizen," he said.


Stokes, whose district includes parts of East and Central Baltimore, scoffed at the argument by religious groups that paying high stormwater fees would take money away from social programs.

"Let me tell you, the people who live in their homes on the blocks give as much service to the city and neighbors as the nonprofits who are spending their dollars professionally to do this," he said.

Some clergy members dispute the need for a lower rate on churches. Mark Parker, pastor at Breath of God Lutheran Church, points out that a square foot of impervious surface causes the same amount of runoff whether it is in his backyard or on the roof of his Highlandtown church.

"We're all equally responsible for the cleanliness of the bay and our city," he said.

Breath of God would pay about $600 a year under the original rate proposal, but Parker said there is no risk that the fee is "going to run us out of business or prevent us from doing God's work in Highlandtown."

Still, he said, churches should not pay proportionally more than homeowners. He's concerned that that could happen both because of the credits available to homeowners and because Rawlings-Blake wants to use some of the fee money to finance a property tax break for homeowners.

Baltimore Sun reporters Luke Broadwater and Pamela Wood contributed to this article.

Stormwater fees

Annual fee for a church with 100 by 100 feet of impervious surface:

Baltimore: $686 (proposed by Rawlings-Blake administration); $114 (proposed by City Council committee)

Anne Arundel County: $1

Baltimore County: $100

Harford County: $125 ($12.50 in first year)

Howard County: $300