D.C. officials have backed away from a proposal that would have made it easier for churches to qualify for a break on their water rates than other nonprofits, after critics said the policy could have been unconstitutional.
The city is instead moving forward with a plan that would allow religious and secular nonprofits to qualify for the same discount on water rates. Opponents of the earlier measure said they were satisfied with the new approach.
“This is a great resolution,” said D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), who wrote a letter to the D.C. Water board saying the previous policy may have violated the First Amendment’s establishment clause, which limits government action that unduly favors religion.
The policy was changed to avoid any delays in the relief program that could result from legal challenges, said Matt Johnson, an environmental protection specialist who worked on the proposals at the D.C. Department of Energy and Environment.
Details of the new proposal were first reported by NBC4.
The adjustment appears to settle — at least temporarily — disputes that have raged around the District’s efforts to raise $2.7 billion for a federally mandated cleanup of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, as well as Rock Creek. To help pay for tunnels that will divert storm water and debris from the rivers, the water board has levied a charge on customers based on the amount of their property that does not absorb rainfall, such as paved surfaces.
Cemeteries, and churches with attached cemeteries, had complained that they were being hit with unaffordable new fees. Officials at Congressional Cemetery in Hill East have said their monthly water bills have gone from $300 six years ago to $3,500 today, with no increase in usage. In May, a group of African American pastors interrupted a D.C. Council meeting to protest the fees, singing the civil-rights-era chant, “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.”
Responding to such concerns, the Department of Energy and Environment created a relief package that would have exempted nonprofits from up to 90 percent of the fees. But the policy gave unequal treatment to different categories of organizations: Churches and cemeteries would have had to demonstrate that at least 0.75 percent of their net revenue went toward the fees, while the bar for other nonprofits was 5 percent.
Although the proposal was rooted in the complaints of cemeteries, many churches without burial grounds would have benefited. City officials estimated that 800 religious nonprofits would have qualified for relief, compared with 400 charitable nonprofits and 15 cemeteries.
After The Washington Post reported on the proposal, a D.C. Water Board committee held off on approving it, waiting for the Energy and Environment Department to adjust the regulations. The agency drafted a new policy that provides relief to any nonprofit whose fee payments amount to at least 1 percent of net revenue. To receive the full discount, all nonprofits would have to take measures to reduce storm runoff.
Johnson said that about 60 new organizations would qualify for relief under the new proposal, most of them charitable nonprofits that are not religious.
The committee and board as a whole plan to convene special meetings to vote on the new policy. If approved, it would go into effect in January, said water board spokesman John Lisle. The board has already adopted relief measures for low-income residential customers.
Craig Muckle, public policy manager for the Archdiocese of Washington, said the archdiocese has no objection to the new plan. However, he said he still feared the money the city is setting aside to pay for nonprofit discounts — about $3.85 million — would not be sufficient.
“I do think that they’ve severely underestimated the amount of relief necessary,” Muckle said.