Catholic leaders say stormwater fee needs mending

By George P. Matysek Jr.
UPDATED 9 a.m. Feb. 7, 2014: Faced with a newly enacted stormwater remediation fee that could hit them with a bill of approximately $10,000 after anticipated credits are applied, leaders of the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Homeland are worried.
“It introduces a new, unanticipated stressor in pastoral budgeting,” said Monsignor J. Bruce Jarboe, rector. “As a not-for-profit entity, we rely on the generosity of our supportive parishioners. Even with their wonderful generosity, maintaining a budget for the important work we do is a real challenge. This just makes the challenge much more difficult.”
Monsignor Jarboe isn’t alone.
Catholic leaders in many parts of the archdiocese are concerned about how the stormwater remediation fees will affect their ministry and outreach.
Mandated by the state, the fees went into effect July 1 in Maryland’s 10 largest jurisdictions. Funds will be designated to help the state comply with federal environmental regulations.
While some counties have enacted fees that are virtually nothing, others have instituted charges that will cost parishes and other institutions thousands of dollars.
As previously reported in the Catholic Review, most jurisdictions are basing their fees on a property’s impervious surface area, including paved parking lots, sidewalks and rooftops. Some plan to assess residences and commercial properties at different rates, and most are assessing churches and other nonprofits at lower rates than commercial or residential properties.
Baltimore City has enacted one of the highest fees of the 10 jurisdictions, which also include Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Charles, Frederick, Harford, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.
According to archdiocesan calculations, Catholic ministries in the city have been charged a combined $683,880. Some schools and churches will be eligible for a reduced rate upon application, but archdiocesan leaders expect that it will only reduce the billed amount by approximately $75,000.
The total assessment for parishes and schools in the city, which includes the cathedral, comes to nearly $275,000. Catholic hospitals will have to pay $151,740. Catholic Charities will pay $54,180, with the city’s Catholic universities, Loyola University Maryland and Notre Dame of Maryland University, charged $178,020.
Mary Ellen Russell, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference (MCC), said her organization has been talking with lawmakers at the state and local level about making the fees less burdensome for nonprofits. The MCC is the Annapolis-based legislative lobbying arm of the state’s Catholic bishops.
“We recognize the importance of putting into place measures that will reduce storm runoff and protect the bay,” she said. “We are not asking to be completely exempt of our responsibility to contribute to this effort. We are asking for recognition of the unique nature of the religious and nonprofit community and our inability to meet what, in some cases, has been excessively high financial burdens that are being imposed.”
Russell wants the state legislature to revisit the remediation fee in a way that “recognizes the financial constraints of the nonprofit community.”
“It makes more sense, if the goal is to reduce runoff, to provide grants or credits to nonprofit institutions that will assist them in implementing mitigation efforts than to simply penalize them with unaffordable fees that will only end up reducing the service that our institutions are providing for our communities,” she said.
The MCC pointed out that in addition to parishes and Catholic outreach groups such as Catholic Charities and St. Vincent de Paul of Baltimore, Catholic schools also make important contributions to the state. Catholic school parents save Maryland taxpayers more than $713.5 million per year in per-pupil expenditures, according to the MCC.
Clarence Bryant, director of management services for the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Homeland and the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore, said it’s especially important for the city to recognize the contributions of the Catholic Church to the wider community. The church provides many supportive services that would otherwise go unfilled, he said.
“I would like to see more acknowledgment of that by a further discount,” he said.
Many Catholic institutions have already taken steps to mitigate the effects of stormwater runoff.
Monsignor Joseph Luca, pastor of St. Louis in Clarksville, noted that when St. Louis began plans for a new church and other campus improvements 15 years ago in Howard County, a stormwater management system was incorporated.
“It included connecting all of our buildings with underground piping and drains that capture any runoff from impervious sources like the parking lot and roofs,” Monsignor Luca said, “and all of that is pitched so that it drains into a large stormwater management pond.”
At St. Paul in Ellicott City, a newly opened evangelization center includes a “green roof” with vegetation that helps with stormwater management.
“It purifies the water and lightens the carbon imprint,” Father Matthew Buening, pastor, explained. “It also saves on costs.”
Archbishop Spalding High School in Severn is among several Catholic schools that have introduced environmentally conscious campus improvements such as rain barrels and low-flush toilets.
With the help of a state grant, the environmental stewardship committee at St. Mary’s in Annapolis retrofitted the parish’s parking lot within the last three years with nine rain gardens.
St. Mary’s has also completed an energy audit of all its buildings, implementing energy and water-conservation measures such as re-lamping old fixtures. Recycling efforts have been introduced and the high school offers an environmental studies program.
“We can do these projects on our properties,” said Marcia Verploegen Lewis, co-chairwoman of St. Mary’s environmental stewardship committee, noting that state grants are available to fund projects such as St. Mary’s rain gardens.
At the cathedral, parish leaders are looking at future mitigation efforts which could include using pervious pavers to replace concrete parking lots as they wear out.
John O’Hara, chairman of the facilities and grounds committee at the Catholic Community of St. Francis Xavier in Hunt Valley, noted that when his church was built in the late 1990s, a stormwater pond was incorporated on the site – a design feature that earned his parish a 30 percent reduction in the stormwater remediation fee.
O’Hara urged parish leaders across affected jurisdictions to scrutinize their remediation fees. When St. Francis Xavier received its first stormwater remediation bill, O’Hara noticed that Baltimore County did not account for other remediation efforts the parish had made, such as infiltration practices. He appealed the charge and won a further reduction, bringing the final bill down to $598.
“The parishes should really look at the justification for the charge and make sure the numbers are correct,” O’Hara said.
It’s particularly important for parishes to make sure the amount of impervious surfaces for which they are charged is accurate, he said. Otherwise, they may be overpaying.
Ironically, some pastors pointed out that the remediation fee may have the unintended consequence of making mitigation efforts more difficult for nonprofit institutions. Faced with paying high fees, parishes, schools and other organizations may not have the resources to make campus improvements.
“I’m sure that’s not the intention,” said Father Buening, but “it’s taking money from churches and religious organizations.”
St. Mary’s Lewis, politically active in environmental causes, said that although the stormwater remediation fees need to be made “more equitable” and “fair,” it’s an important tool for addressing ongoing problems with pollution flowing into the Chesapeake Bay.
“We need to be responsible for the damage we’ve done,” she said, “and we need to make it better.”
O’Hara, noting that parishioners of St. Francis Xavier recently helped plant 300 trees on the church property, called caring for the environment a way of being good stewards.
“We have a responsibility to protect God’s creation,” he said.
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