A local church spearheads efforts to repeal Richmond’s storm water tax, a fee that is forcing it to choose between helping their community and keeping their doors open.
There was a time not long ago that the sanctuary at Second Baptist Church on Broad Rock Road was more likely to echo with elevator music and the rattling clatter of shopping carts full of produce than the hum and harmony of sacred music.
Last week it echoed with dissent over the city’s storm water runoff fee.
Adopted by City Council in 2009 to meet a federal Environmental Protection Agency mandate, the tax was only earlier this year revealed to be what some businesspeople and residents are calling a draconian and regressive tax.
Calling it the Noah Tax, about 80 residents and business owners – most constituents of Southside districts where storm water-related drainage issues are a historic sore spot – gathered at Second Baptist last week to plot strategy for seeking a repeal of the fee. The group also traveled en masse on two church buses to the March 22 City Council meeting, but their comments were largely lost to the din of Mayor Dwight C. Jones’s 2011 budget presentation.
But their message is one that the group promises won’t be flushed away so easily.
The $8,500 utility fee bill that the Rev. Ralph Hodge paid to cover the converted Winn-Dixie store that now houses Second Baptist was money he should have been able to apply to vital community service projects.
“That’s as much as we give in scholarships to high school graduates every year,” he said. “That’s our whole scholarship fund. We don’t think they should be charging churches at all.”
But fees – though they act as a tax – are not assessed as taxes, meaning churches pay equally to other businesses. Second Baptist was hit so hard because the fee is assessed on commercial properties based on the square footage of impervious surfaces like roofs and parking lots. Richmond hopes the fee will generate about $7.8 million annually toward utilities projects required to comply with EPA standards.
“It’s not based on the business’s ability to pay at all,” says Hodge, noting that a business with $1 million in revenue operating out of a small storefront pays only according to their roofline, where a business with higher impact and land-use needs but lower revenues, like an auto shop, is assessed many hundreds of times more.
Such inequity, businesses argue, could drive out many smaller businesses – particularly the sort of trade- and service-related businesses that thrive in the economically depressed Southside of the city.
“You have worked a law that has placed a noose around property owners’ necks,” said Ophelia Powell Daniels, addressing her accusations at Reva Trammell, the lone City Council member to attend the meeting. Others were invited. Marty Jewell had promised to attend, but never came.
“As Americans we need an explanation,” Daniels declared.
Daniels called on Trammell to step down if she “couldn’t do the work” and asked her to submit a Council paper to rescind the tax.
Trammel sat tight-lipped with her arms crossed.
Nick Eubank, of Eubank Trucks Inc. on Hopkins Road, said he might soon have to shut down his business.
“It’s just $10,000, but it’s $10,000 every year for the rest of my life,” Eubank said, noting that customers “aren’t going to pay me any more for my services tomorrow because they laid this tax on me.”
Other business owners asked why they were not excused from the fee for having their own storm water mitigation efforts in place. One woman noted her business has a retention pond that means no runoff from the business goes into the city’s storm water system.
“So it sounds to me like the city is taxing illegally,” grumbled another man.
When her turn came to speak, Trammell was emotional.
She told the group that when the proposal first came to council from Mayor Dwight Jones, she and fellow councilpersons were told it would be a $3 charge.
“Reva is here!” Trammell told the room, promising support. “We could lose our businesses, we could lose our homes.”
But when another organizer of the meeting called on Trammell to introduce a proposal to eliminate the fee, Trammell shook her head.
“No… no… it’s not going to work,” Trammell said, turning the tables. “You put [the proposal] in. You come down there! It will not go anywhere with this new form of government. Unless I can get three or four more council people to support me, it won’t go nowhere!”
Her audience rippled. Ralph Cramer, another angry business owner and an organizer of the meeting, growled at Trammell’s suggestion that business owners “still have time” to tell Council of their objections, saying that many of businesses already have sent their first fee payment away.
“Well, a lot of people still haven’t paid,” Trammell countered.
“Ain’t gonna pay,” muttered another man, folding his arms across his chest.
“Remember, you and [9th District Councilman] Doug Conner replaced two people who were too arrogant to listen to ‘we the people’,” Cramer shot back at Trammell, who countered by noting Jones’s absence at the meeting.
“The mayor won Southside and he should be here to listen to you,” she said.