Three churches have emerged victorious against the city of Magnolia, Texas, which tried to soak its churches but ended up all wet.
The way Magnolia figured its in-city water rates, nonprofit organizations such as most churches ended up paying more than commercial businesses. The rates paid by nonprofits were equal to rates paid by businesses outside of the city limits.
Previously, churches were charged the same rates as businesses within the city limits.
But when it came to the bottom line, church officials said they were facing a 300 percent increase in their water rates, according to Community Impact.
So the three churches filed a lawsuit.
In December of this year, though, the city of Magnolia agreed to charge businesses and religious organizations equally, and the churches reciprocated by dropping the lawsuit, the Texan reported.
But it wasn’t easy getting to that point.
“Nobody argued with being charged commercial rates. None of the churches asked for discounts. They’re just saying, ‘Treat us like everybody else,’” Dave Welch, president of the Texas Pastor Council, said in 2018 while trying to get the rates equalized.
Steve Burrell, senior pastor of Magnolia Bible Church, said churches should not be targeted.
“The water rates aren’t going to devastate us,” he told Community Impact. “From a philosophical perspective, we understand that the city has to pay for its water. I know of no church that has an issue or problem with that idea. The problem is specifically targeting churches with higher fees and utility costs with the specific intent of eliminating the property tax exemption.”
City Administrator Paul Mendes said then that the city was looking at ways to shift the costs of the water system off of residents.
The city’s argument was that this was one way to get money out of those that did not pay taxes.
“The solution [that was] developed [involved] the creation of the [institutional] customer class for the utility customers who do not pay taxes to the city and who have atypical usage patterns compared to the other customers to offset their portion of the debt service payment,” Mendes said, per the Texan, when he spoke to a state legislative committee when Texas was debating whether to intervene. (It did not.)
That led to the Magnolia Bible Church, Magnolia’s First Baptist Church, and Believers Fellowship filing the lawsuit that eventually was dropped because of the agreement reached between the churches and the city.
“Our clients are thrilled that, because of this agreement, they can turn to what they do best: care for their community in partnership with the City,” said Jeremy Dys, special counsel for litigation and communications for First Liberty Institute, which helped represent the churches.
The statement came in a press release from First Liberty.
“We are grateful that churches and all religious organizations in Magnolia will now be treated equally along with area businesses by the City of Magnolia,” Burrell said in the release.
“We are eager to work with the City Council to continue to improve the lives of our friends and neighbors.”
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