CS PHOTO BY JACLYN LIPPELMANN
This year administrators of the historic Mount Olivet Cemetery in Washington, shown above, will pay a total of $126,810.89 for the city’s “rain tax” – the Clean Rivers Impervious Area Charge.
CS PHOTO BY JACLYN LIPPELMANN This year administrators of the historic Mount Olivet Cemetery in Washington, shown above, will pay a total of $126,810.89 for the city’s “rain tax” – the Clean Rivers Impervious Area Charge.

The Archdiocese of Washington and other Catholic institutions in the District of Columbia have joined with other religious and non-profit groups in voicing their opposition to a proposed increase in the “rain tax” collected by D.C. Water and Sewer Authority.

“Each parish (in the District) provides valuable community and social services in the neighborhoods where they reside so the astronomical fees being paid to D.C. Water limit our ability to support the city’s social services network in the areas where they are needed most,” Craig Muckle, manager of public policy for the Archdiocese of Washington, told city lawmakers Nov. 17.

Muckle was among two dozen people who testified before the D.C. City Council’s Committee on Transportation and the Environment. The committee was hearing public testimony concerning a proposed increase in the Clean Rivers Impervious Area Charge (CRIAC) imposed by the water company.

CRIAC – popularly called a “rain tax” is a fee tacked on to District water and sewer bills based on the area of impervious surface on a residential or non-residential property. An impervious surface is defined as one through which rainfall or surface water cannot flow. Such surfaces include asphalt, concrete, buildings and other covered areas, patios, tennis courts, driveways, swimming pools, parking lots and the like.

Money collected through CRIAC is earmarked to fund the $2.6 billion federally mandated Clean Rivers Project designed to protect the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers and Rock Creek. The project – which began in 2009, and is expected to be completed by 2030 – includes a system of underground tunnels that will capture and clean wastewater during rainfalls before it ever reaches rivers.

The individuals and groups opposing the CRIAC fare increase said they are not against paying their fair share of the project, but the rate increases are placing an unfair burden on them.

“Our parishes are supported solely via tithes and offerings that are provided by congregants during worship services,” Muckle said, adding that “those parishioners are already paying their own CRIAC fees for their homes and/or businesses.”

Muckle told the committee that archdiocesan property in the District not only includes parishes but also “schools, offices, rectories and other operations” including Mount Olivet and St. Mary’s cemeteries, a seminary, Catholic Charities offices, Victory Housing and “recreation properties located through the city.”

“Focusing solely on our parishes, which are responsible for the services each uses to sustain its operations, we paid D.C. Water nearly $350,000 in CRIAC fees alone during the 2016 calendar year, an average of more than $9,000 per parish,” he said. He added that if he included the fees paid just by the two cemeteries, “that total rises to approximately $500,000.”

He urged councilmembers to devise “a comprehensive solution which includes all stakeholders, not just those within the city’s limit, and is inclusive of the broader metropolitan region that benefits from the health and vitality of the river.”

Josephite Father Thomas Frank, pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Southeast Washington, told the panel that his parish paid $37,000 last year in CRIAC fees and will pay more than $40,000 this year.

“Because of these ever-increasing rates, we have decreased staff and staff time, delayed and stretched our repairs,” the priest testified. He added that his parish has been “forced to find new ways to expand fundraising outside of Sunday collections.”

Father Frank said that his parishioners were willing to pay their fair share of the Clean Rivers Project.

“I believe that we should share in the burden of paying for the purpose of the CRIAC fee,” Father Frank said, adding that Pope Francis has been outspoken on the responsibility to care for the environment. However, he said, houses of worship “are suffering from the ever-increasing financial anchor … hanging around our proverbial church necks.”

Cheryl Tyiska, manager of both Mount Olivet and St. Mary’s cemeteries, said the continual increases in CRIAC fees “are not sustainable” for her cemeteries. She noted that in 2009, Mount Olivet paid a total of $6,478.80 in CRIAC fees and this year the cemetery will pay a total of $126,810.89.

“Mount Olivet no longer has inventory of new burial sites or sufficient burial activity to cover our basic operational expenses,” she said. “We need to conserve our financial resources to maintain these sacred grounds in a safe manner for all our visitors, and especially for the families and friends of those who have died.”

That sentiment was echoed by Jim Jones, a senior warden at St. Paul’s Rock Creek Episcopal Parish and Cemetery.

He said his parish and cemetery has experienced a 6,000 percent increase in its water bill in less than 10 years.

“The funds (to pay the bills) are coming from money set aside for the care of the cemetery,” Jones said. “Taking care of God’s creation is one of our priorities, but the people are overburdened, ignored and without recourse.”

He stressed that “we're not asking for an exemption or a free ride. We're perfectly willing to pay our fair share, we just want some equitable treatment for it."

Prior to the hearing, Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd had introduced a measure that would help ease cemeteries’ impervious area fees. “I understand the necessity of the Clean Rivers Project, yet it is unacceptable to fund the project in a way that is overly burdensome to our cemeteries, threatening to run them out of business,” he said in introducing the measure.

Private citizens also spoke out against the proposed increase.

Beverly Jackson  said that the increase in the water bills was adversely affecting the primarily senior citizens who live in her condominiums. “It is not an understatement to say that this is catastrophic,” she said of the increased water bills.

Resident Tracey Williams told committee members, “I can't stop this rate from increasing, there's nothing I can do. Even if I stop running the water, the bill would just keep going up.”

Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, who chairs the committee that held the hearing, noted that the city has “a big bill on our hand and we need to figure out a way to pay it.”

Admitting that this is “a fairly complicated matter,” Cheh said, “I don’t think its beyond the wise thinkers at D.C. Water to soften the blow (on customers) and come up with a better way” to foot the bill for the Clean Rivers Project.