Spike in county stormwater fee alarms church leaders

Stormwater flowing in a drainage ditch in the county.

Several churches across Berkeley County are uniting to protest the spike in their 2019 stormwater utility bills. They are demanding council members reconsider the tax hike and enact a more reasonable increase.

“For many churches, paying this type of increase will diminish their funds to do ministry to fulfill their mission and purpose,” said Gary Fabian, worship and administrative pastor at Crowfield Baptist Church in Goose Creek.

For his church alone, Fabian estimated the increase to be 2,000 percent higher than normal. He said the fee soared from $72 the last four years to “a whopping” $1,692 on his 2019 bill.

Henry Nix, financial minister at Harbour Lake Baptist Church, also in Goose Creek, said his church’s stormwater fee rose from $72 to $756, prompting him to immediately contact county leaders and suggest they raise the fee in smaller increments over several years.

“If this increase is really necessary to this extent shouldn’t they be increased over time, such as a five-year or more period?” Nix said in a letter to the council and County Supervisor Bill Peagler.

Nix also explained that with overall tithe totals dropping across church communities nationwide, it’s no longer a reliable funding source for rising costs.

“Utilities and expenses in churches (and everyone) are climbing every year, but this increase from the county is certainly detrimental to the life and ministry of churches in Berkeley County,” Nix said.

At the Nov. 26 council meeting, Fabian presented the church leaders’ shared concerns. During public comment time, he told the governing body his church is one of at least 13—the list “ongoing and growing”—that the new stormwater use fee is negatively impacting. Fabian said, if necessary, the churches are ready to sign a petition, appealing the fee.

“We are urging all Berkeley County Churches to oppose this increase by contacting their council representative and urge them to reverse this increase, until they have had time to further educate themselves on the stormwater utility fee and can act with dignity and integrity to approve an increase that is proper and justifiable,” Fabian said.

He also told the council he’s confused as to why the county isn’t adhering to its own rules.

According to section 8 of county ordinance 18-05-21, at the time a permanent stormwater management utility fee structure is established, the county engineer is permitted to create a specific credit policy for properties that help manage stormwater, Fabian said.

That criteria includes but isn’t limited to “self-containment of runoff,” “documented stormwater facility maintenance practices” and “implementation of water quality education programs,” according to the ordinance. While Nix said Harbour Lake Baptist doesn’t maintain any of the criteria, Fabian said his church does. A 7,600-square-foot retention pond, which the county “has not taken into consideration,” is located on the Crowfield Baptist property, according to Fabian.

However, Fabian said the county denied his church’s appeal because the county engineer revealed the county has yet to actually establish a credit policy for “self-containment of runoff.”

“How can you legally enforce a portion of the ordinance while ignoring other parts?” Fabian said.

The fee explained

In May, County Council adopted an amendment to the Stormwater Management Utility Ordinance, which established a permanent stormwater utility fee. It replaced an interim fee council members adopted in 2014 to meet unfunded federally mandated regulatory permit requirement and provide staff time to further study and create a permanent fee and classification system, according to County Spokesperson Carli Drayton.

Initially set to increase annually for three years, to meet state and federal requirements, the interim fee was never raised, Drayton said.

The new permanent fee is based on the amount of impervious surface located on developed, non-residential parcels throughout the county’s unincorporated parts. The county decided, through a stormwater management utility rate study, to use impervious surface as the means for assessing the fee, Drayton said.

Earlier in the year, the county notified residents of the fee change through four separate public meetings. But at that time, there was no public opposition, according to Drayton.

The fee’s new tier structure, explained in-depth on the county website, is assessed in multiples of equivalent residential units, or ERUs. Drayton said an initial permanent residential fee is $36 annually per ERU—meaning a property with about 21 acres of impervious surface would pay nearly $12,000 a year in stormwater fees.

Appeals

Fabian said he reached out to multiple council members—receiving a response from Councilman Tommy Newell only. At the meeting, Councilmen Josh Whitley and Kevin Cox defended their reasons for not immediately responding.

“I try very hard to respond to folks, particularly in my district but even others…but I don’t respond to people who, in their emails, tell me I’ve dishonored God,” Whitley said.

Cox echoed Whitley’s words.

“I did read the email; and I, too, was offended…and did not respond because of that,” he said.

In hearing about the church appeals, council members said they welcomed them and promised to consider each one.

“I will take every appeal fairly and squarely,” Whitley said.

Cox agreed.

“This whole council will look at every appeal and make a decision,” he said. “I suggest you appeal it if you feel you have those facilities to take care of the stormwater runoff; appeal it, and this council will listen to it with an open mind.”

Cox also expressed concern over the county’s rural fire departments paying the same fee and how certain surfaces—including rock parking lots and asphalt—are treated equally.

“But when you go on the Internet and research, the experts in the field say ROC compacted is the same as an impervious surface. Well, by definition, water will go through it, so it’s not impervious,” Cox said.

Council members further explained how the fee stems from an unfunded federal mandate placed on municipalities and counties.

“It was an Obama-era issue that I believe the Trump administration’s dealing with, and I’d be glad to vote to get rid of the whole thing,” Whitley said.

But regardless of property type—nonprofit, commercial, residential—the fee must be paid, according to Cox.

“In my view, whether you’re a church, whether you’re a boys’ club—whatever you are—if you have that amount of impervious space you need to pay your fair share,” he said, “because if you don’t, it’s going to be passed on through to your parishioners and everybody else. The fee has to be paid; it’s just a matter of where it’s coming from.”

Crowfield Baptist has since appealed the county’s denial but still plans to pay the fee—“in protest,” Fabian said. County Council was scheduled to hear the church’s appeal, along with one from Blue and Gold Auto Salvage, at Monday’s meeting, according to the agenda.

But Nix explained church leaders’ hands are tied on the issue.

“We have no choice but to pay it,” he said.

The county has received at least 30 appeals regarding the fee, Drayton said.