Hurting for Tax Revenue, Town Ponders a Freeze on Churches

By Sylvia Moreno
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 19, 2006

STAFFORD, Tex. -- To say this Houston suburb's got religion is hardly an exaggeration. It's more like an understatement.

In one short stretch, there are the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir Hindu temple, made of 3,836 tons of hand-carved Italian marble and Turkish limestone; the simple yet welcoming Family Worship Center ("A Good Place to Call Home," declares the sign); St. Johns' Knanaya Syrian Orthodox Church; and the future home of the Henry David Thoreau Unitarian Universalist Congregation ("Room for Different Beliefs . . . Yours," says its sign).

Next door is the unadorned Islamic Society mosque; across the street is the West Side Baptist Church with its "Prayer; Wireless Access to God; No Roaming Charge" sign; and on the corner, next to an auto-parts store, stands the Jesus House Texas with its big pink cross and "Reigning in Victory" sign. And that is just one street.

Welcome to the city where, one church sign announces, "Worship Is Not Just on Sunday but Everyday." Make that everywhere, too.

Fifty-one churches and religious institutions sit inside this seven-square-mile city of 20,000 people, and a handful of others in the city's extraterritorial jurisdiction are asking to be annexed.

Neighboring Houston may boast the nation's largest and fastest-growing megachurch today -- Joel Osteen's 30,000-member Lakewood Church. But Stafford is home to almost every other kind and size of religious institution -- the El Shaddai Dios Todopoderoso Ministry, the Philippine Trinity Baptist Church, the International Buddhist Progress Society's Chung Mei Temple. Is this too much of a good thing? Concerned city officials are trying to answer that question.

The problem: Thousands of acres owned by religious and affiliated institutions are exempt from the property tax rolls, and with only 300 acres of undeveloped land left, Stafford is looking for a legal way to say "enough."

"Our goal is to find a reasonable way to say to them [churches] that we've done our part in Stafford," said City Council member Cecil Willis Jr. " Please consider somewhere else."

Mayor Leonard Scarcella and other city officials say this is not about being anti-religious. Like other cities that have tried to control the growth of churches and other tax-exempt nonprofit organizations, Stafford is trying to find a way to preserve space for revenue-producing businesses.

"We have to be very, very careful that we maintain the viability of the city," Scarcella said. Churches "receive the full benefits of the police department, the fire department, the building department. Whatever they need, they have it. They pay a building permit fee, and that's the extent of what they pay" to the city.

City officials say most people who attend these facilities, which cater to a variety of ethnic and racial groups, are not Stafford residents but Houstonians or residents of nearby suburbs.

"They come in, practice their religion, leave and leave us with the bill," Willis said. "There's got to be some other place outside this city to practice your religion and to let us develop our remaining property."

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