Last week, more than 200 Detroit pastors gathered to hold a press conference and publicly register their discontent with the looming prospect of dramatically increased water bills due to recalculated drainage fees attached to their properties. This issue has been brewing for quite some time, so it’s not surprising that it’s finally coming to a head. And it’s also completely understandable why the churches are not only upset but why many are worried about their ability to keep their doors open if they can’t find a way to work out an arrangement to lighten the load.
Consider this: your water bill used to be several hundred dollars a month, but then one day you are notified that some adjustments had to be made and your bill is about to blow up by several thousand dollars per month. Do you think you might be a bit shocked? Or maybe the phrase ‘freaked out’ comes a bit closer to how you might feel. Perhaps even a phrase that cannot be reprinted in a family newspaper.
So now you know how the churches feel, because this is not an exaggeration in more than one case involving newly assessed church properties. But there are almost always two sides to a story, and after speaking with DWSD Director Gary Brown recently about the problem confronting the churches, it became clear that there is considerably more to this story that hasn’t been fully reported as of yet.
The gist of the problem boils down to this: if the churches are unable to pay their drainage fees, then somebody else has to, because they are not going away. In many cases, a significant part of the problem is due not only to the size of some church parking lots, but to all the additional properties owned by some of these churches where water drainage fees are also owed. In some instances there are as many as 30 or more additional properties attached to one church alone.
Understand that this is not meant in any way to be a blanket indictment of Detroit’s pastors or churches. Certainly some manage their affairs better than others, but in so many cases it is the churches that have stepped in to bridge the communal gaps where government programs have been unable to step up for so many years. Churches, particularly in the black community, have historically been much, much more than a house of prayer and worship, they are a place of refuge. In other words, churches don’t just manage the business of the hereafter, they are frequently called upon to manage the here and right now. Dr. Martin Luther King is the most obvious example of that, but there are so many others, some of them right here in our own city.
All that is understood and greatly appreciated. However, as Detroit continues to right-size itself, an unfortunate part of that right-here-and-right-now is that the water bill is coming due. Not only for churches, it should be noted, but for a number of businesses, organizations and institutions. Brown re-emphasized the position of Mayor Mike Duggan that the city will do everything it can to work with the affected churches.
What follows is portion of my interview with Brown:
From your viewpoint, what is the main complaint of the churches? What are they upset about?
GB: Their main complaint is that the new drainage charge that’s being rolled out is going to put a lot of them out of business and it’s just not affordable for them to pay the charge. They’re feeding the poor, clothing the poor, sheltering the poor, and the dollars being used to pay the water bill is going to take away from those resources. And in a lot of cases that’s legitimate. At the same time, the Water Department is mandated by law and by regulation to treat everybody equally and fair. And so we’ve got to find a compromise that meets the goal of equity and fairness, and at the same time does not adversely affect the mission that the church is trying to accomplish.
Is this just the city trying to rectify itself?
GB: A lot of this is decades and decades of no maintenance to the system, and now you have these exorbitant costs to maintain the Detroit water system. A lot of this is just sheer economics that you have 139 square miles in a city that has plumbing, sewer and water lines underground that were built to manage 2 million people. And now you have 670,000 people trying to support a system that was designed for 2 million. And so, because the system hasn’t been right-sized for decades, now the Water Department is trying to do that. Certainly, with all the economic development that’s going on in the city, populations are shifting to different neighborhoods. And when that shift takes place, then your infrastructure has to also shift.
Do the churches understand what is happening to them?
GB: I think most of them do. But it doesn’t ease the pain of having an increased bill for drainage. And while we’re willing to work with the churches, and have been doing workshops to try and develop programs with regards to credits that they could get to reduce their bills by at least 50 percent, a lot of the churches lack the resources in order to be able to design a green infrastructure project on their property that would allow them to reduce their bills. And so we’re trying to be very creative in finding community outreach and sweat equity-type activities that would qualify for a reduction in their bill. But even with that done so far, there still are a lot of churches that would be hurting under a plan as it is designed today.
Is it more the smaller churches than the larger ones that are facing problems?
GB: It’s both, but the larger churches have more capacity to be able to deal with the problem than a small church. So it’s really the ones that are kind of in the middle that may or may not have seen population loss within their congregations, and probably need to take a look at their business model of how they are operating and how they’re going to fulfill the mission that they have of feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, being the city’s safety net. We recognize that they have been that for a very long time. They’ve been adopting parks and cleaning parks. They’ve been participating in doing things that the city couldn’t do prior to the bankruptcy, and now they’re looking for some relief, and we will help them find that relief. But we have to do it within the constraints of the law. We have to be fair and equitable to all classes of our customers, or we’re setting the Water Department up for a lawsuit with the customers that would say ‘you’re taxing us to cover their costs’.
Are you currently working with any churches?
GB: Yes, right now we’re doing site assessments on some church properties. We’re trying to build green infrastructure projects that will allow the other churches to model those projects. And so if we take a larger church, and we build a green infrastructure project, and I fund the site assessment along with the engineering and design of that project, then we can use that as templates for the smaller churches to be able to use that model without needing the engineering, because it would have already been done, and without [having to go through] the permit process, because we can pre-approve them for the process as long as they use the template that we’re designing. And so, we’re trying to find ways that reduce a church’s cost. And at the same time this is really about being environmentally friendly and managing storm water within our system. And so we’ve got several designs and models that are in play right now that will be finished very soon, and that other churches and also commercial establishments will be able to model and build out a project that will allow them to reduce by up to 50 percent the cost of their drainage.