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Village still weighing expansion of cost-share program to lessen stormwater fee for churches

Church members leave St. Joseph Church in Downers Grove.
Church members leave St. Joseph Church in Downers Grove.

DOWNERS GROVE – The Downers Grove Village Council on Tuesday further discussed expanding the cost-share program to help churches make capital improvements that would reduce their stormwater fees.

The proposed expansion would make $200,000 in annual funding available for the village to make partial matches with churches looking to install permeable pavers or other storm-water related capital improvements. Churches can the take those improvements and apply for credits to offset up to 50 percent of their monthly stormwater bill.

Village staff and council members proposed expanding the cost-share program following months of lobbying by local faith leaders who say the new stormwater fee is an unfair burden on nonprofits.

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 homeowners were paying for about 75 percent of village stormwater infrastructure improvements, despite only owning about 50 percent of the impervious ground in Downers Grove, officials said.

But for nonprofits like churches who don't pay property taxes, it is an entirely new expense.

The current cost-share program is available to all property owners, but the expanded portion would only be available for faith-based not-for-profits.

Village Manager David Fieldman said staff decided against making the expanded grant program available to all tax-exempt properties because then large, financially-able institutions like Midwestern University or Good Samaritan Hospital would be eligible.

"We wanted to make sure we put together a program that was targeted to the religious institutions," he said.

The council discussed the program Tuesday during its first reading. It will likely appear on a future agenda for vote.

If approved, the program would reimburse up to 75 percent of the project cost to the property owner, with a maximum of $5,000 for design and $20,000 for construction. The applicant’s 25 percent share could include in-kind donations of labor, materials and services, according to village staff.

"I think it's a good first step and I look forward to its implementation," Commissioner Greg Hose said. "And I hope there are a lot of churches in the area that would take advantage of it."

Commissioner Bob Barnett supports exempting churches entirely from the fee, and said Tuesday he would likely vote for the program, but he thought it could go further in helping the churches.

He cited that a typical church pays between $2,000 and $3,000 annually in stormwater fees, meaning if an average church earned a 50 percent credit, they might see a savings of $1,500 annually.

"Which is a lot of money to a household, and it's a lot of money to a church," he said. "It's also a really slow payback on anything that's substantial in terms of investment."

Barnett also said he was conflicted about making the program only available to faith organizations, and not all nonprofits.

Mayor Martin Tully said he would be open to adding further sweeteners to the program for churches.

"I really would like to accomplish two things," he said. "I want to both mitigate the impact upon the tax-exempt organizations that are now dealing with the stormwater utility fee, and also encourage them to take the steps necessary to further the goals of the storm-water program, because I think that is where the benefit really rises and falls."

At the end of the discussion, Commissioner Becky Rheintgen asked council whether they would support reducing nonprofits storm water rates by 10 percent compared to other property owners.

She said a lower rate would assist churches who cannot afford to build the construction projects necessary to take advantage of the cost-share program.

The proposition did not appear to gain wide support from the council as a whole.

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