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Downers Grove commissioners re-open debate whether nonprofits should pay stormwater fee

Published: Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013 3:45 p.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, July 29, 2014 9:57 p.m. CDT

DOWNERS GROVE – A determined effort by Downers Grove churches seeking relief from the stormwater fee appears to have gained some traction at village hall.

For most property owners, the change to 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 — one that some say they are having trouble budgeting for.

Church leaders ramped up their efforts this spring, gathering more than 1,200 petition signatures, and sending representatives to speak at village council meetings.

Those efforts were met with a response from several commissioners during Tuesday night's village council meeting.

Commissioner Bob Barnett said at the meeting he thinks churches and nonprofits should be completely exempt from the fee.

Billing nonprofits for stormwater is "an absolute departure from the philosophy that says government is funded in certain ways, and certain organizations, because of their commitment and contribution to government activities that might otherwise have to be funded by us, are exempt," he said.

Mayor Martin Tully responded that it was a necessary departure from that philosophy.

"This is the departure that we made, and it's working," he said. "It's working in terms of generating the funds that it's intended to. It's working in the sense that it's spreading out the cost of maintaining infrastructure and capital stormwater projects across the broader group of payers."

He said that while he is not in favor giving exemptions to the churches, he would like to look at further incentives and credits that could help advance the overall goals of the stormwater program while offering relief to the nonprofit organizations.

"Is there some way to both encourage the types of outcomes that we want while keeping them in the program and ameliorating the impact upon those organizations in a way that isn't unfair to others?" he said.

The fee is calculated by the amount of impervious space on a property, which Tully and other officials say is a more equitable way to pay for stormwater improvements than the old system of using property taxes.

Residential properties account for about 50 percent of the village's impervious area, and currently fund about 50 percent of the stormwater improvements under the fee system.

Before, when property taxes were the funding mechanism, residential customers paid for about 76 percent of stormwater improvements, according to a consultant's report.

Tax-exempt properties, including churches, account for about 8.7 percent of impervious area in town.

The discussion took place during a motion to make several clerical changes to the stormwater fee ordinance, along with a progress report from a consultant. The report showed that the new stormwater fund is within 1 percent of its expected budget, among other details.

Commissioner Sean Durkin kicked off the nonprofit debate when he said the council should consider credits or incentives for nonprofit organizations that provide programs and assistance in Downers Grove.

"I would like to find a way to support or compensate the churches and not for profits in their role in providing social services," he said.

Responses from other commissioners spanned both sides of the debate.

Commissioner Geoff Neustadt said there should be more conversation regarding relief to the nonprofits, but not until the village has seen a year's worth of numbers.

"As we go forward with this utility and get through a whole year of the process … we can understand and forecast a little bit better out into the future," he said.

Commissioner Greg Hose sympathized with the church's tight budgets, but doesn't believe they should be exempt.

"I encourage not-for-profits to apply for incentives," he said.

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