The Rev. Willie Wilson, the senior pastor of the Union Temple Baptist Church located in D.C.’s Ward 8, has been getting water bills that have been outrageous and learned he is not alone. Now, he is leading the fight to get DC Water, the Washington, D.C. area’s agency that supplies and regulates water and sewage for the District of Columbia, and Prince George’s and Montgomery counties in Maryland, to lower their costs so that churches and low and middle-income residents can continue to pay for service without having to make great financial sacrifices.
“My church got a water bill that was $2,400 this month,” Wilson told a group of ministers and District residents at the Ward 8 Pastors and Faith Leaders Network Breakfast that took place on Feb. 10 at Campbell AME Church in Ward 8.
“My personal water bill is $212. A few years ago, people had water bills that were in the range of $60 or $80.
“It would seem to me that the water issue is a class and race issue,” Wilson said.
The District is mandated by federal law to pay $2.9 billion for state-of-the-art tunnels that will keep sewage and groundwater from flooding the area’s rivers. In order to pay for the tunnels, a plan was approved by DC Water’s board in 2009 that would assess a charge of $1.24 per square feet of concrete where water builds up and goes into the sewage system. This is known as the Clean Rivers Impervious Area Charge (IAC).
Some District Black churches have high IACs because they have large parking lots attached to their sanctuaries and business offices. For example, Union Temple would have high water bills because its large parking lot is right outside of the church whereas Asbury United Methodist Church on 11th Street. N.W. doesn’t have big water assessments because its parking lot is underground and there is ample parking on the street that is not assessed against the church.
When the charge first started in 2009, it was small but now churches can be assessed tens of thousands of dollars that are based on aerial shots of all D.C. properties that have outside concrete. DC Water regulates IAC rates.
Wilson said that the high water bills have nothing to do with how much water is used but is a built-in assessment based on the quantity of water that is on ground pavement.
Wilson said that Black churches are being targeted intentionally because of “The Plan.” “The Plan” is a well-known belief by many African Americans that there is a systematic plan covertly supported by the District government and some in the private sector to push Blacks out of the city.
Wilson said “The Plan” is in concert with the high water bills.
“I know of several churches that have left the city because they can’t pay their water bills,” Wilson said. Places of worship such as Imani Temple, Mount Joy Baptist Church, Rock Creek Baptist Church, and the Second Baptist Church are among those that have left the city or in trouble because of high water bills.
Wilson said that D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) and the members of the D.C. Council are largely powerless to do anything about the high water bills because they don’t regulate DC Water. While the mayor picks six members of DC Water’s board and the Council has to approve the appointment, the mayor and Council have no power to direct the agency’s activities.
However, there are some District residents who believe that the mayor and the Council can do something to stop the high water bills.
“I believe that the mayor and the Council can be proactive and come up with some sort of relief for those churches who are dealing with these high water bills,” Tyrell Holcomb, an advisory neighborhood commissioner 7F01 in Ward 7, told the AFRO. “Many African American churches are struggling and they don’t have the financial status that they had 20 or 30 years ago. Now, they have to deal with this.”
Some D.C. Council members have paid attention to the crisis. D.C. Council member Brandon Todd (D-Ward 4) introduced a bill “The D.C. Cemetery Private Road & Parking Lot Exemption of Clean Water Fees Amendment Act of 2017”, on Nov. 7, 2017 that would exempt private roads and parking lots from the IAC.
Todd did this in response to the high water bills, up to $200,000, at St. Paul’s Rock Creek Church Cemetery in Ward 4.
On Jan. 18, D.C. Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), who chairs the Committee on Transportation & the Environment, wrote a letter to DC Water that asked for, among other things, a hard exemption on non-profits and residents on fixed incomes, a green space offset for large spaces such as cemeteries and exemptions for private roads.
DC Water officials wrote Cheh back and thanked her for her input.
Wilson said he has the support of about 200 churches and organizations to confront DC Water.
“We are going to have a mass meeting on Thursday, March 1, 2018 at Union Temple and it will start at 7 p.m.,” Wilson said. “We have the support of the DC NAACP, Washington Interfaith Network, the AFL-CIO, and Empower DC, among others. We need to organize a mass of people in order to stop these high water bills.”
Wilson told the AFRO that a legal strategy is being discussed, also.
“We are considered a class-action lawsuit and we have a legal team that is considered other options, too,” he said.
In a statement to the AFRO, Henderson Brown IV, the interim general manager of DC Water said that the agency is aware of the concerns that Wilson and others raise about high water bills.
He said they are “using innovative financing to spread the costs out over the lifespan of the project and securing additional time to complete the federally mandated work.”
“Currently, we are proposing a one year decrease in the IAC that will provide some relief to all of our customers in fiscal year 2019, Brown said.
Brown said his agency will continue to work with the mayor and D.C. Council on easing costs for low-income customers, cemeteries and faith-based organizations.
“I have met with some of these organizations myself, and we remain open to new ideas and solutions to address their concerns while preserving the viability of this important effort to improve our rivers,” he said.