DOWNERS GROVE – Pastors and church-goers packed Downers Grove Village Hall Tuesday night in their effort to exempt faith-based organizations from paying the new stormwater utility fee.
For most property owners, the creation of a stormwater fee is close to cost-neutral; the village cut property taxes nearly $2 million this year to account for the separate fee. But for property-owning nonprofits, which are exempt from property taxes, it is an entirely new expense.
Church leaders say the fee directly cuts into their budgets to offers social services and help the poor and homeless in Downers Grove.
Christian Worship Center Pastor Peter Kucher said at the meeting that its pantry feeds 200 people every month.
"We will have to cut that in half," he said, because of the new cost.
Other leaders said the fee opens the door to further taxation on churches, violating the separation of church and state.
St. Mary of Gostyn pastor Bill Cullen referenced former Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall's famous quote regarding churches freedom from taxation – "the power to tax is the power to destroy."
"We oppose your tax for that very reason," Cullen said, addressing the council. "Because it is a step in the door of destruction.
"Now I know you would feel that's not at all what you're thinking about. However, you have a term of office. And unless you serve forever, other people come along, and you have opened the door to that kind of taxation. So we must oppose this."
Church leaders ramped up their efforts this spring, gathering more than 1,200 petition signatures, and sending representatives to speak at village council meetings.
Village officials say the new fee is a more equitable way to fund stormwater improvements, because it's calculated by the amount of stormwater runoff that a property creates. Before the fee, single-family home owners were paying for about 75 percent of stormwater infrastructure improvements, despite only owning about 50 percent of the impervious ground in Downers Grove.
"As property taxes went up, we found out that … families in our community were paying a disproportionate burden of stormwater costs because of the way the property tax system works," Mayor Martin Tully said.
One resident said during the meeting that since homeowners already pay the fee, they are essentially paying for it twice when a portion of their church donations go to the village as well.
Tully engaged with many of the speakers directly during the public comment section of the meeting, which ran for more than 90 minutes.
Last month, commissioners discussed options to help mitigate the impact of the fee on nonprofits, and identified the possibility of expanding a cost-share program.
Expanding the cost-share program's budget would allow the village to help fund property improvements at nonprofits that would reduce their stormwater runoff, earning the organizations credits to lower their fee.
Commissioners did not appear to be swayed during the meeting toward exempting faith-based organizations, but they are expected to further discuss the cost-share program at future meetings.