Pastors to Protest Fees at City Council

In just a few weeks all the details of Houston's new drainage fund will be finalized and approved. In advance of that final vote — the city is holding a public hearing on Wednesday where residents can share their ideas for how the drainage fee should be implemented. Laurie Johnson reports.

The drainage fund, known during the election as Prop 1 and now referred to as Rebuild Houston, will go before city council in two weeks for a vote.

But first, residents get a chance to have their comments and ideas go on public record at a hearing at city hall on Wednesday at 9am.

Houston Mayor Annise Parker says the hearing will address how much the rate should be and whether there should be any exemptions.

"The problem is the charter says now that we have to raise $125 million, it doesn't tell us how to get there. My proposal says that we're going to treat everybody fairly, no exemptions, everybody pays their fair share. But a lot of folks want to see exemptions, at least for schools, some for churches as well. And we're going to have to negotiate that."

Church groups have been among the most vocal opponents of Rebuild Houston. Dave Welch is executive director of the Houston Area Pastor Council. He says he and other clergy will be at the hearing to ask the mayor and city council for exemptions.

"The rate, of course, is an equal concern because it would impose $1,400 per impervious acre. A lot of churches have a lot of property in small congregations, or a lot of buildings. But it really doesn't matter the size — all the way from Second Baptist that estimates impact of $300,000 per year down to a small church that may only be a few thousand, but it's still a very large financial hit."

Welch says the fee amounts to a property tax, something he says opens a Pandora's Box for other taxing organizations to potentially impose on churches as well.

"There are many different reasons why we think this is simply bad law. It's not good for the people of the city and we're going to challenge it on every front we possibly can to get this remedied."

Councilmembers C.O. Bradford and Al Hoang will offer an amendment to exempt churches and schools from paying the fee.

Parker says she hasn't yet polled other councilmembers to learn how much support there is for such an exemption.

"I pledged to the voters last fall that I would present an ordinance where everybody paid their fair share. And as long as councilmembers are fully aware that if they exempt any one group others are going to pay more, particularly the residential property owners. And I think we need to be very careful about that."

A lawsuit against the city is pending, which challenges the ballot language and terms of the charter amendment for the drainage fund.

Meanwhile, council is required by law to implement the drainage fund by July 1st.

Bio photo of Laurie Johnson

Laurie Johnson

Local Host, All Things Considered

Laurie Johnson is the Houston host for All Things Considered at KUHF NPR for Houston. Before taking the anchor chair, she worked as a general assignments reporter at KUHF, starting there as an intern in 2002...