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St. Joseph's asks for free sewer connection

Ingrid Mezo

(8/17) Priests and parishioners from St. Joseph's Church in Emmitsburg asked town officials this week to grant them a free sewer connection tap, and told officials they were billed for tap fees for years without ever having used the service.

The church made the request during a town meeting Monday.

The church paid thousands of dollars for a sewer connection tap inside the church they never used, since wine and holy water is required to go directly into the ground rather than the sewer, St. Joseph's Budget Manager Helen Kelley said.

The town's connection fee for a tap is $11,000.

When Kelley pointed out that the church was being charged for a service they were not using, town staff stopped billing them. Town officials were uncertain whether the town ever refunded the money to the church.

While several members of Emmitsburg's Board of Commissioners, including Glenn Blanchard and Art Elder, who are parishioners at St. Joseph's, were in favor of granting the church the free tap, Mayor James Hoover and Commissioner Chris Staiger directed the board's attention to the town attorney's opinion on the matter.

But, "if the church has been billed for many years [without using the service they were billed for], that may shed new light on the issue," Hoover said.

At the same time, granting a free tap to one organization, when the town had to deny another community service group a permit recently, could bring charges of favoritism and lawsuits upon the town, the town's attorney told the board in a letter dated Aug. 10.

"Regardless of the good intentions of the board and the beneficial services provided by the church, I would have serious concerns over the legality of permitting a waiver of fees for one organization if similar waivers are not then granted to other similarly situated groups," Town Attorney John Clapp said. "Such a waiver could easily become the basis for charges of favoritism and discrimination when the next group -- for instance the Methodists or the Baptists -- seeks a similar waiver of fees."

In addition, St. Joseph's request for a free tap comes at a time when the town is only granting 20 residential permits per year until it resolves its sewage problems, based on a recommendation from the Maryland Department of the Environment. The state suggested the town restrict its tap allocations until it resolves its sewage problems, and the town and state signed a consent order with that provision in it. The state could impose heavy fines if the town fails to "ensure the elimination of overflows, bypasses and effluent violations," as outlined in the consent order.

It is possible for the state to increase the number of taps in Emmitsburg, "but additional taps must be requested by Emmitsburg on a case-by-case basis," said Richard McIntire of Maryland Department of the Environment.

"Emmitsburg alone determines to whom those taps are allocated," McIntire said.

The formula the town uses to allot its permits has already lead one local developer to threaten the town with a lawsuit if he is not granted additional permits this fall.

"We've only begun fixing our sewer problems," Hoover said in a phone interview last week.

While St. Joseph's is not asking for one of the town's residential permits, the church is requesting permission from the town to receive a tap and a waiver of the tap fee, the Rev. Vincent O'Malley said.

"There will be no new volume," O'Malley said. "We're asking for a change of location, an exchange from the parish hall to the church."

The church wants to construct a handicapped accessible bathroom inside the entrance of the church, so older parishioners can reach it more easily.

"The bathroom would experience minimal usage," O'Malley said in a letter to the town. "The four hour-long Masses on Saturday evening and Sunday morning have a combined attendance of 700 people on average, and the daily Mass Monday through Saturday mornings has an attendance of 50 people on average. Judging from my observations on the number of people who currently leave Mass to use the bathroom, I anticipate that not even a dozen people would use the bathroom at the weekend masses, and perhaps one or two persons would use the bathroom during the daily Masses."

The church is also asking that the town grant them the tap while DePaul Street is under construction, so that they would not have to tear up the road again to get access to the sewage system later.

Clapp also advised the board that the town code indicates that "the granting of a permit is a ministerial duty of the mayor," and that the mayor cannot waive connection fees without legislative authority.

"Likewise, there is no legislative authority for the Board of Commissioners to waive those fees," Clapp said. "The code has placed all duty to sign sewer connection permits with the mayor."

Both the president of the Board of Commissioners and the mayor are required to sign off on water connection permits, but only the mayor can sign off on sewer connection permits.

This indicates that "the Board of Commissioners was not intended to be involved with ministerial duties of signing sewer connection permits and was not intended to be authorized to dispense with the duties of collecting the fees," Clapp said.

Parishioners of the church reminded the board that the town had forgone making a donation to the church in December, with a promise to consider waiving fees later on.

The town does not routinely give out donations to churches during the holiday season, said Pat Feeser, the town's media contact.

In order for the board to waive the tap fee for the church, commissioners would have to agree on a new ordinance.

Hoover instructed town staff to ensure that a connection is made for the tap while road construction is being done, and town officials voted 4-0 in favor of considering the issue at the Sept. 6 meeting rather than voting on it Monday. Commissioner Bill O'Neil was absent.

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