The Rev. Harold Roberts moved the needle on the issue of separation of church and state Tuesday night, with the help of other churches in Gautier.
The City Council has agreed to set up a committee to reconsider a demand fee on commercial entities and whether or not to treat churches like businesses.
The move didn’t come without ruffling some feathers.
At one point in a heated exchange with Councilman Adam Colledge, Roberts told Colledge: “We didn’t create the problem, we shouldn’t be scapegoats for it. Take your 30 pieces of silver and go you know where.”
There was a quiet, but collective gasp in the audience.
Colledge walked out, but came back and told Roberts he wasn’t a good man for talking to him that way.
After the meeting, Roberts stood before a television camera and explained:
Gautier was given the chance by an attorney general’s opinion to treat churches differently, he said, “but they chose to ignore it because they need the money.”
“I compared it to Judas and the 30 pieces of silver (paid to betray Jesus Christ),” he said. “I try to speak forcefully, because I think this is a moral issue.”
Roberts and others believe the fee is a tax on churches, because it’s not tied to water usage. He contends the issue isn’t about money, but rather principle and how the city treats its churches.
The demand fee started out at $100 per inch of pipe running into a church or business. After protestations from the small churches, who seemed to be hurt the most, the city lowered the fee for small businesses that used less water, but kept churches in the category of small businesses.
Tuesday night, David Aultman, the pastor of the not-so-small First Baptist Church of Gautier, lent his voice to the issue when he told the council it’s not about big churches or small churches, black or white.
“All churches are struggling,” Aultman said. He said his church’s utility bill jumped from $375 to $675, almost $300 above and beyond the charge for the actual amount of water it uses.
Other church pastors — Tanya Evans with St. Stephens United Methodist, Mona Lisa Ladnier with Abundant Life Christian Center and Alicia Alexander with Church Upon the Rock — explained the hardship of ministering to the community and also paying an extra fee (or tax) on the churches.
Councilman Casey Vaughan rattled Roberts’ argument temporarily, when he pointed out that St. Pierre Episcopal, the mission church Roberts is pastor for, is arguing that the water fee is a tax they shouldn’t have to pay, when the church has not completed the paperwork needed to get the city exemption from sales tax.
Mayor Gordon Gollott, who has heard from Roberts for the past several months at council meetings, said he has heard enough.
He called for a Water and Sewer Advisory Committee.
“I am willing to listen to anybody to get this water rate down,” Gollott said. He agreed that city utility bills are high, but he and others pointed out that the water and sewer fund has to be self supporting.
“I’m willing to look at anything,” he said. “We would love your help, and let’s tackle this problem .... But we will talk about money. It’s all about money, not just changing your classification. Somebody has to pay.”