CHAMPAIGN — A new fee faced one last hurdle on Tuesday night, this time from the religious community, but the city council still gave administrators the final OK to begin billing property owners next year.
A group of pastors and their faithful asked council members to exempt their churches from hundreds of dollars' worth of new charges annually, but a majority of council members ultimately said storm water drainage affects all city properties and, therefore, everyone should be charged equally.
"It affects everyone in the city," said council member Marci Dodds, who has been one of the fee's biggest supporters. "It is also caused by everyone in the city."
The fee was approved by a 7-2 vote. Paul Faraci and Kyle Harrison voted against the proposal on Tuesday.
The storm water fee will allow the city to continue with major storm water drainage improvements throughout the city, like flood relief for the West Washington Street area and continuing enhancements to the Boneyard Creek.
They are much needed improvements, city officials say, and without the fee, all storm water funds are committed for the next 20 years while an $80 million list of projects awaits.
"It started in the '50s, and the can's been kicked down the road since the '50s," said council member Karen Foster. "We need to get these areas of the city fixed."
Council member Will Kyles favored the fee on Tuesday, but not before suggesting that the vote be deferred for two weeks so council members could give the fee closer consideration. He said churches should get special consideration.
"There needs to be something done on the behalf of people that serve us," Kyles said.
Still, he supported the fee.
"I never heard people disagree with the fee," Kyles said of citizens who had spoken shortly before him. "I heard people ask for some more wiggle room, which is what I'm asking now."
Salem Baptist Church's Rev. Claude Shelby said churches work on thin, unpredictable budgets, and he is worried that the added charge could affect his church's programs.
"On Sundays when God sends the rain, it runs into the sewers or what have you, and many members are not there," Shelby said. "And if they're not there, their offerings are not there."
City Manager Steve Carter noted that exempting any segment of the community could present a legal issue. The objective basis for charging property owners, he said, is the impervious surface area, or any surface that is impenetrable to rain.
"If people with impervious surface aren't charged a fee, then that rationale starts breaking down and is subject to legal challenge," Carter said.
Mayor Don Gerard said he sympathized with the churches but felt comfortable supporting the fee because it had been given so much thought. Officials began deliberations more than two years ago, and Gerard said the extra money for storm water projects will benefit everyone.
"This is good for everybody," Gerard said. "It quite simply is. That's the bottom line."
Billing will begin in 2013. About 80 percent of Champaign homeowners will owe $60 annually. Much larger homes could be charged up to $164 annually.
Businesses will be charged based on how much impervious surface exists on their properties. That could mean big bills for commercial properties with large parking lots or expansive roofs.
The city council still needs to approve a package of credits and incentives to allow property owners to potentially reduce their bills with storm water improvements before billing begins next year.
The Champaign County Chamber of Commerce had objected to the fee at a previous meeting. No chamber officials made public comment on Tuesday.