Church Questions Berlin Stormwater ‘Tax’

Church Questions Berlin Stormwater ‘Tax’

BERLIN — Reverend John Abent of Faith Baptist Church rekindled the stormwater debate in Berlin this week, asking the Town Council why churches were not exempted from what he views as a “property tax.”
“We call it a tax because we believe that’s what it is,” said Abent of the new stormwater utility fee the town is charging all properties. “And, quite honestly, I was surprised and taken aback when this was implemented.”
Abent also referred to the fee as “the camel’s nose under the tent” and worried that if it went unchallenged it might be the first in a slew of taxes pushed onto his church. Quoting scripture, Abent proposed that Berlin is overstepping both a legal and moral line with the fees.
“The point of it is, and this is really a theological and ideological sense, we really oppose this because we look at the rain as a blessing from God,” he told the council.
The rain might be a blessing, agreed Mayor Gee Williams, but the flooding and runoff that sometimes follows it is definitely not.
“If we could pray it away, we would have done that. But we have this responsibility to stop the flooding and stop the continued degradation of our bays and tributaries,” said the mayor. “The stormwater utility, in our view and in the state of Maryland and in court cases throughout the land, is not a tax.”
Williams explained to Abent that no properties are exempted from the utility fee in Berlin. If exemptions started to be made for religious institutions, government buildings or non-profits, the cost of getting the utility up and running would be focused on a smaller group of residential and commercial property owners.
The total fee for the Faith Baptist Church comes in at about $200 per year. The exact dollar amount isn’t the issue, argued Abent, but the fact that the town is usurping some control over the church through finance.
“I’m here today because, ultimately for me, it’s freedom that’s at stake, a little here and a little there,” he said. “And, as I said, this may be just the camel’s nose under the tent and I’m going to smack that nose and if the camel tries to get further under the tent, I’ll be back.”
Even outside of the tax versus fee argument, Abent pointed out that his church installed a stormwater management system on its property at its own expense, about $10,000.
“The issue for us is that we’re separate. We don’t appeal to the community, we don’t appeal to the private sector, we are a self-contained entity, and that’s what I don’t think is being recognized here. We take care of our property and our stormwater management,” he said.
Abent asked if properties who have installed their own management systems might be exempted. Williams replied that the town’s plan in the future is to at least offer some kind of discounts or incentive program for people who are proactive with their own systems. Anything like that is further down the road, however, and the town is just concentrating now on putting the utility in place.
Councilwoman Lisa Hall commented on two of Abent’s points. As far as his assertion that Faith Baptist is “self-contained,” Hall didn’t agree. There are likely several members of the church that in some way benefit from keeping area waters healthy through responsible, large-scale stormwater management, she asserted.
“The thing that sticks in my mind the most is that the water out here, the bays and the ocean, is a $700 million a year industry to this area,” said Hall. “And it’s kind of disheartening when you’re out on the beach or out on a boat and you see the trash and pollution … I’m sure you have people in your church that benefit from this tourist industry, from this water.”
Regarding the church already having a stormwater management system, Hall asked how old it is. When Abent replied that it was installed about 15 years ago, Hall explained that both technology and standards have evolved a lot since then so that the system might not be as effective as Abent believes.
Williams also disagreed with Abent’s statement that the Faith Baptist is “self-contained.” The church and its members are very much a part of the town and the community, Williams said, and like every other property, they are helping solve a town-wide issue that affects everyone.
“That is our approach here: we’re trying to take the community’s problems and deal with them as a family,” said the mayor.
The ideological differences persisted between the church and council, however, with Abent arguing that his group is already doing its share.
“I believe the property owner has a responsibility,” he told the council.
After a lengthy discussion, Williams acknowledged that the two sides are unlikely to see eye-to-eye on the issue and told Abent that if he truly believes that the town is levying a tax or otherwise acting out of bounds, that he bring the matter before a judge.
“I would suggest to you that I don’t think that any amount of preaching, any amount of informing, is going to persuade either myself or [the council] to walk away from this problem,” said Williams. “If you honestly think something is immoral or inequitable and illegal, then I suggest that you turn to the judicial system which is in place for just that thing.”
Abent didn’t signal that his church would pursue such a course, but did tell the council he would be monitoring the utility situation.