Catholic parishes, institutions fear storm water fees might sink finances

By Maria Wiering
mwiering@CatholicReview.org

Twitter: @ReviewWiering
Local stormwater fees could cost parishes, schools and charitable organizations thousands of dollars annually if nonprofit organizations are not exempted or granted reasonable caps, according to the Maryland Catholic Conference.
The fees, which nine Maryland counties and Baltimore City must establish by July 1 under a 2012 state law, could put Catholic programs and social services in jeopardy, said Mary Ellen Russell, MCC executive director.
“What’s unusual in this situation is for local and state government to be turning to the nonprofit community to raise revenue,” she said. “The nonprofits have to find their funds somewhere, and I can’t imagine that they wouldn’t have to cut back on what they would have to provide the community” should they be required to pay the proposed fees.
The MCC, which advocates for public policy on behalf of the state’s bishops, is urging Catholics to share their concerns with state representatives and local officials about what some are calling a “rain tax.”
“With a significant outpouring of grassroots feedback, perhaps we can limit the burden of these new fees on our parishes and schools, either by exempting nonprofits or by having the fee capped or set at a reasonably low rate,” the MCC said in a March 22 “action alert” email.
The law tasked the 10 jurisdictions with crafting a plan to collect the annual fees, which will fund local stormwater management plans. The plans are in varying stages of development across jurisdictions, but several mature proposals do not exempt nonprofit institutions such as parishes, Catholic schools, hospitals or charitable organizations.
The jurisdictions that have put forward proposals suggest a fee per a certain number of square feet of impervious surface area, such as buildings, driveways, sidewalks, pools and parking lots. In some jurisdictions, the fees vary by property type.
For example, Baltimore City is proposing to charge flat fees ranging from $48 to $144 annually to single-family residences, but charge all other properties $72 per 1,050 square feet of impervious surface.
Baltimore City will hold its first hearing on the proposed fees April 2 at 2 p.m. at City Hall. 
Bill Baird, chief financial officer for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, said that many Catholic parishes and schools have large buildings and parking lots, and the fees would add a “significant cost.”
“Whenever you add a level of cost to our locations, most of which use all of their resources to provide the services they provide in the community that they’re in, that’s a great concern,” Baird said.
The fees could amount to more than $150,000 for Catholic Charities of Baltimore, which owns more than 100 properties in the affected counties, said William McCarthy Jr., its executive director.
The fee would hit as Catholic Charities and other nonprofits are absorbing the cost of programs, such as Head Start, that lost federal funding as a result of sequestration.
“It’s an additional burden,” said McCarthy of the proposed fees.
For Catholic Charities, the fees would take dollars from discretionary allotments for emergency services and some programming funding, he said.
According to the Maryland Department of the Environment, stormwater from impervious surfaces has increased, contributing to the pollution of the state’s rivers, streams and the Chesapeake Bay. State law and federal guidelines require the state to manage stormwater runoff, and last year’s legislation updated the state’s approach to meeting Environmental Protection Agency guidelines.
Maryland’s nonprofits were not aware of the law’s potential impact when it passed last year, Russell said.
“What we’re all waking up to is that a number of counties are moving in the direction of (having) a significant, and very unexpected, financial impact on organizations that ordinarily are not taxed, because they’re nonprofit organizations that provide services to the community and work on very limited budgets,” she said.
The Catholic Church applauds efforts to protect the environment, and many properties owned by Catholic organizations already take measure to mitigate stormwater runoff, Russell said.
“We’re obviously very thoughtful about the bay, given the region we’re in,” Baird added. “We’ve been vigilantly challenging these (fees) on the premise of what we can actually afford, and balancing that commitment to the environment with our commitment to our communities that we’re trying to serve as well.”
Voicing concern regarding the fees is causing change in at least one jurisdiction. Anne Arundel County is working to reduce the fee’s impact on the nonprofit community, Russell said.
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