- Associated Press - Sunday, March 5, 2017

GAUTIER, Miss. (AP) - When the city of Gautier added a hefty demand fee to its commercial water bills, small churches pushed back.

It took five months, but the city decided in February to lower the fee. Some of the churches still believe such a fee is inherently wrong.

“It’s the principle of the thing,” said the Rev. Harold Roberts, priest for St. Pierre’s, an Episcopal mission church that has been in the city for 25 years.

The fee was not about how much water a church used. It’s in addition to the regular bill.

“They call it a fee, but I see is as a tax,” Roberts said. “We’re not using any more water.”

Roberts’ mission is the largest in a group of small churches that has spoken out, most of them black churches.

“I see it as an attack on the church, discounting separation of church and state,” he said. “They told me I was rude, when I spoke out about it. I said, ‘I am not. I haven’t sworn or anything.’ I spoke forcefully. I’m passionate about this. I’m passionate about the church.”

He described his response as “going into Old Testament mode.”

“The city claims this is just a cost for water,” he said. “But it’s extraordinary and out of the blue. There was no room to talk, no letter in our bill.”

The extra fee was $100 per inch of width of the water line feeding into a church. A 2-inch line, for example, was an extra $200 a month, over and above a church’s monthly bill for water and sewage, which also went up more than $22 for the first 3,000 gallons, whether you use it or not. Gautier has two classifications for its utility bills - residential and commercial. The churches come under commercial, and if you are commercial, then you get the extra fee.

Big churches had no comment. They paid the bill.

But Maurice Hudson, bishop-elect with the True Vine Holiness Tabernacle - with a membership of 40 - began to speak out, circulate letters to fellow small churches and rally.

“My wife looked at the church income and what we were paying for the bill,” he said, and shook his head. “We don’t have any financial problems, but to pay $2,400 a year on water bills when we’re only here three days, maybe four, out of the week and we don’t even use the minimum usage? We use about 500 gallons a month.”

It’s money that could be going to adopting a family food bank, helping people with light bills, saving toward a church van to pick up more people, adopting a family, helping at the old folks home, helping people with food and clothing, he said.

“The first time I got the bill was huge for us, $160-something for a water bill is astronomical to me,” he said. “So we paid it the first time and I started going around, trying to do a survey. Does everybody know about this? Nobody did. The city sort of eased it up under the radar to you. So what I did about it, I prayed about it and typed up a letter to formulate a committee. … Let’s talk about it.”

Hudson said, “People started calling me. I didn’t get a response from the larger churches, but the smaller churches galvanized” with meetings at Martin Bluff Baptist Church.

“The city did this from a business stand point,” Hudson said. “We did it from a church standpoint.

“Initially, I felt disheartened, an attack on the church,” he said. “They won’t let you put a church in a residential neighborhood anymore. They forced us to come to the commercial side. Then this.

“We all talked about separation of church and state, which is a long ‘nother story,” he said. “They gave us what they call a demand fee. Dr. Roberts said it was a tax, but they knew they couldn’t put an excessive tax on the church, so they did what they call a demand fee.

“How do you come up with a demand fee? They had all their lawyers look into all the stuff and came up with a demand fee,” he said. “It landed pretty hard. It was a shock.”

So why the increase?

By law, the city utility fund has to be solvent and self-sufficient, stand on the revenue from its rates, explained Paula Yancey, an attorney who became city manager in April.

She found several reasons Gautier’s utility fund was running low.

- The city had bought new meters believing they would pay for themselves, because they would register higher water consumption. But water consumption actually went down.

- A study of water rates that lead the city to reduce water bills in 2015 was too optimistic.

- The company that manages water treatment billed the city an increase of more than $230,000.

- And the utility authority that handles city sewage treatment has had a series of increases in recent years, over which the city has joined a lawsuit.

“We had to raise rates to collect enough money,” Mayor Gordon Gollott explained. “It’s not a tax.”

The legal authority for a rate increase is different.

Water and sewer rates for homes and businesses went up from $30.33 a month, if you use up to 2,000 gallons, to $52.50 if you use up to 3,000 gallons. Then, for the first time, the city added the special fee for businesses, essentially creating a commercial rate. Small businesses complained as well as churches.

The fee was imposed in October. But last week - after a long outcry - the city voted to reduce that fee by half, beginning in April, for businesses that use less than 2,000 gallons a month. Gautier left churches in the commercial classification and set up a category for small water users.

Yancey said, the city wanted to provide some relief and keep the utility fund afloat. After seeking an attorney general opinion, she said she believed they couldn’t create a “religious classification” for billing, so it applies to all small businesses.

The reduction helps 193 of the 300 businesses that are getting the $100-per-inch fee.

The compromise will cost almost $10,000 a month, she said. “We’re going to try it.”

But the city may have to reconsider, if the utility fund gets too low.

The smallest and hardest hit

“My church is small. When I say small, I mean very small,” said Pastor Alicia Alexander with Church Upon the Rock. “Our employees don’t even get a salary. We can’t afford it.”

Alexander has been pastor for six years, working to build the ministry. They are buying their metal building. They have Tuesday prayer services, Bible study on Sunday morning, Sunday school and a Sunday morning worship service.

It’s a church of mostly women. There were 25 before Hurricane Katrina in 2005, now there are four.

“When the bill was $45, we didn’t have the money then. But we paid it and didn’t complain,” Alexander said. Then it went up to more than $140.

Even the lower fee is too much, she said, and this is happening when thousands of churches are closing around the U.S.

“They called it a demand fee. Whatever it is, it’s a burden on the church. It’s persecution,” she said. “I told them you better reconsider what you’re doing.”

“They are making the churches pick up the tab for their mistakes,” she said. “They made bad decisions. Now they are trying to pay for this and they are persecuting the church and God is not pleased with that.”


Information from: The Sun Herald, https://www.sunherald.com

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