Water fee taps Detroit churches

Nicholas G. Hahn III
The Detroit News
St. Charles Lwanga parish faces a $2,385 hike in its monthly water department bill. Such fees are paid from collection baskets.

A balanced budget in Detroit might be something only prayed for, but few could imagine Motor City managers raiding church offering plates for revenue.

Yet new drainage fees from the city’s Water and Sewerage Department may do just that.

Come October, the department will begin charging property owners differently. Some of those property owners currently pay an antiquated fixed rate, and others haven’t paid a storm water fee at all. But all property owners in Detroit will now pay based on acreage, which means fees will likely go up.

Eric Rothstein, a department program director, told The Detroit News last week that this type of charge is “commonly now used” to finance storm water management programs. Billing by acreage is a “trend (in) water resources financing,” he said.

More than 400 properties will see “a significant increase in billing of more than 200 percent per month,” says department director Gary Brown.

And several of those properties, Brown said, are owned by the Archdiocese of Detroit.

“It’s impacting us, and it’s not good news,” says Joe Kohn, the archdiocese’s director of public relations. The archdiocese owns 80 properties in Detroit, and 18 parishes have received letters from the water department with likely more to come. Five churches will have to come up with more than $1,000 extra per month. Two parishes will be billed an additional $2,000.

St. Charles Lwanga parish in Grand Meyer, for example, has an additional $2,385 to come up with every month. Its pastor, the Rev. Theodore Parker, says the new charge is an “injustice.” Because of the higher monthly water bill, the good priest worries, the parish’s soup kitchen may be forced to close its doors.

Parker, a leader in Detroit’s interfaith organization called DRIVE (Detroit Regional Interfaith Voice for Equity), says Catholics aren’t the only ones concerned. Some Baptist pastors throughout the city also received notices of increased billing.

These types of fees are paid from parish collection baskets, not archdiocesan coffers. Some poor but active parishes, like Sacred Heart Church in Eastern Market, are barely able to make ends meet. Catholics were among the many Detroiters who fled the city and left their childhood church pews — and their collection offerings — near empty.

New fees mean less church-sponsored services for the city’s poor.

Brown says his department is prepared to work with such churches, and has established “compassionate” payment plans. The department also plans to offer “green infrastructure credits” in an effort to offset the new charges. But it’s unclear how helpful those credits will be or what additional costs might be incurred by implementing credit-worthy water management technology.

Parishioners worship at Mass Sunday at St. Charles Lwanga. Water department director Gary Brown says it is prepared to “work with” churches on the bills that will increase more than 200 percent per month.

“I don’t know any city in America that does not charge for water,” Brown says.

But for decades, Chicago has offered a water waiver for churches and other nonprofits.

It was an estimated $20 million annual bill that in 2011 Mayor Rahm Emanuel said the city could no longer afford. But the late Cardinal Francis George, previously the archbishop of Chicago, implied the mayor’s move may have had more to do with shutting down church services than tightening the city’s belt.

“If you don’t want a city that only has government institutions,” he said during negotiations over the exemption in April 2013, “then you have to see to the solvency of religious institutions and other nonprofits.”

Chicago councilmen were forced to work out a fair compromise with clergy. Churches with net adjusted assets of less than $1 million would be granted a 100 percent exemption. The waiver would decrease for parishes with bigger wallets.

Detroit’s water department is bound by state law to collect from everyone no matter the ability to pay, but legislators in Lansing might consider a Chicago-style waiver for Detroit’s churches. Motown’s homeless, sick and elderly depend on religious ministries that would dry up because of the new water billing.

The Rev. Theodore Parker calls the new charge an “injustice,” and fears it will force the Charles Lwanga parish to close its soup kitchen.

The city’s water department estimates its new type of fee will generate $9 million to $10 million in revenue. Marcus Hudson, the department’s chief financial officer, says the change is about “creating equity in the system” as some are overpaying while others aren’t paying into the system at all.

“When we say new revenue, really we’re shifting value because my cost is my cost,” says Hudson. “I have $125 million I have to cover every year. I don’t really care who I get it from.”

But city budgets shouldn’t be balanced with what amounts to a backdoor tax on holy water.

Twitter: @NGHahn3