Thursday, Feb. 7, 2008

Free water discussion resurfaces

Council members reconsider not charging churches

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How, and if, the town should dole out free water was once again a topic of discussion at Monday’s meeting of the Mount Airy Town Council.

Members debated water and sewer exemption practices as well as revisited the idea of whether to exempt churches.

In the past months, the council voted to continue the practice of not charging the Mount Airy Volunteer Fire Company and houses of worship for water use.

The Town Council agreed that the fire company is a different case from houses of worship, but at least one councilman questioned the constitutionality of exempting churches, and whether a church’s membership should pay for its water and sewer costs.

Councilman Gary Nelson, who abstained from the vote at the Jan. 7 meeting that exempted churches, said he inquired about the practice of exempting churches in five surrounding towns in Carroll County.

‘‘Nobody else does this, and I think there’s probably some reason for it,” he said.

A new resolution was drafted and discussed at the meeting, and Nelson said he was concerned that it provide a way to prevent passing on the costs to those who pay for water.

Councilman John Woodhull, who initiated the town’s review of free water practices, said he received an e-mail from a resident who said he did not have a problem with donating money, but he should be able to choose where his money goes.

Councilman Peter Helt, who voted in favor of exempting churches in January, said the town saves money by having the churches since they provide places for recreational activities and meeting locations.

‘‘There’s an overall savings in this, in that there are services they provide,” Helt said. ‘‘The town has not had to foot those with tax dollars, so there’s been a tremendous savings there.”

Nelson agreed some churches provide community resources for residents, but added, ‘‘We get services from any number of other organizations, as well, without them getting free water.”

Since churches often rent out their spaces for private events, they could also afford to pay for their water, he said. He added that if the town decides to give away free water, it should consider residents on a fixed income, such as seniors, for whom paying for water could be a challenge.

The council unanimously voted to give the fire company water, because it provides service for all residents whereas, Nelson said, not everyone attends a church in town.

Bruce Walz, second vice president of the Mount Airy Volunteer Fire Company, thanked the council for continuing the exemption, and said the fire company is beginning to work on water conservation measures and intended to work with the town during the process.

‘‘We are very aware of ... our responsibility, being we are receiving free water, and we have taken steps; we’ve made changes to our water use policies,” he said.

He also addressed comments that he said were made regarding the fire company not being charged for all aspects of its water use, including at its activities building and carnival grounds, saying that the usage was directly related to fire fighting and should continue to be exempt.

‘‘I think people just need to realize that our purpose for having those activities is to make money so that we can provide the apparatus and buy the equipment and the training to continue to provide the service that we’ve done in this town since 1927,” Walz said.

The Town Council decided to table the discussion until the March 3 Town Council meeting, when Council President David Pyatt, who was absent from Monday’s meeting, would be present.