Posted by: zhak39 | July 8, 2009

When Raising Taxes is Anything Sacred?

617 N. Elm St in Historic Fisher Park

Our legislature is exploring taxing medical services in order to close the budget shortfall.  That means an extra charge on top of each dental cleaning, physical, check up, illness which I already pay for through insurance premiums, co-pays and the little extra doctors charge that insurance companies don’t cover.  In practical terms, this means that I will have my teeth cleaned once per year so the rest of the family can have their bi-annual check ups.

2205 W Market St in Historic Sunset Hills

A letter to today’s paper proposed government buying foreclosed property from banks then using a lottery system to dispose of them because this shell game works so well for education.

302 W Market St, downtown Greensboro

I think it may be time to look at some untapped resources.

The year we bought our house, the nearby town that provided our water hook ups decided that they needed to update the pipes that delivered our water.  As our property is in an unincorporated part of the county, we do not pay taxes to this municipality nor do we have representation.  There was a contract drawn up about 30 years before.  It was a simple agreement that the couple dozen households near the border would pay for the installation and upkeep of a water delivery system and would pay for the water at twice the rate of people living in town.  Not ideal but it worked.

After 30 years the town decided that the pipes needed to be bigger.  It is not that there is more demand along the line.  There had been some breaks and leaks which we property owners promptly had fixed at our own expense.  Still, the town insisted that our two inch pipe needed to be replaced with a six inch pipe.

As it turns out, we were paying for a system to serve a new neighborhood that was in the planning stages.  Several dozen new houses that would be within the city limits could be most directly served using the pipes that serviced our few houses.  My suggestion was that if the town had to use larger pipes they should pick up the difference in price.  We would pay replacement value for the current system; they could kick in the increased cost of a heftier infrastructure.  Of course, since we had no representation the town refused to entertain negotiations.  We got stuck with the inflated bill.

(This is typical property owner rant, I know but there is more to the story.)

You know how they say that Americans work a certain number of days just to pay taxes?  Well you could add another 9 weeks to that for me to pay off that freaking water line.  An unexpected expense but I paid it off.  Then several weeks later I heard the same lament but accomanied by a choir.  Apparently a property owner had petitioned the town to waive the fee.  They couldn’t afford it.  They were poor.  They had limited resources.  They asked for mercy.  And they got it.    Because they are a church.  Now I understand they are a small church with just a few dozen congregants but they are associated with a larger worldwide organization that rakes in hundreds of millions of dollars yearly.   And I understand that their portion of the bill was larger than mine because their quaint little congregation holds onto 14 acres of undeveloped land next to the new development.  And I understand that they are water conservationists of a sort, adhering to baptism of the Holy Spirit.  But all this is besides the point.

They got an exemption because they are a church.

First Presbyterian Church, 617 N Elm St in historic Fisher Park.

Our Lady of Grace, 2205 West Market Street in historic Sunset Hills.

West Market United Methodist, 302 W. Market St, downtown Greensboro.

Why are these agencies which sit on some of the most valuable land in the county not paying property taxes?

15Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. 16They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are. 17Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

18But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? 19Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, 20and he asked them, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?”

21“Caesar’s,” they replied.
Then he said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

22When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.

Matthew 15-22

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Responses

  1. An old argument

    On one hand it is unfair that religious organizations, with conspicuous assets, poor mouth to get breaks from publicly funded resources, such as water and sewer. On the other hand you may want to temper your disgust by remembering that many of these churches fill in many of the financial holes that our government has chosen to cut out of their social service programs. The church that I work for spends most of their money supporting food pantries, elder care and housing for AIDS patients.

    If you are particularly PO’d at the Catholic Church for it’s massive wealth, please take some comfort that many of the faithful haven’t been coughing it up, due the churches mishandling of all of those sex abuse cases. Old mother church in Rome may have the gold, precious art and the land holdings, but the local parish may indeed be in financial difficulty. All assets are controlled by the diocese. A bishop is free to acquire or dispose of the assets in any way he sees fit. (In Albany, NY, millions of the faithfuls money were spent defending the bishop from allegations of homosexual behavior) http://www.snapnetwork.org/news/otherstates/ny_albany_victims.htm

    Then there is that thing with the separation of church and state…

    A solution is to round up the affected citizens and demand representation, but that representation may involve paying taxes. As a group you may want to consult a good attorney, who can help you explore your options.

  2. Thank you for your comments, Crabby, and for the link to the news story. Coincidentally, my husband attended a Catholic school on the outskirts of Albany, New York during those years. He has the classic memories of being chased by ruler wielding nuns but was never the target of homosexual pedophiles.

    As well, the work that you do through your church to support your at-risk communities is laudable. I have developed interfaith based and secular communities of concerned volunteers in the attempt to blunt the acuteness of suffering we find in this life journey. Isn’t it wonderful when adherents of various religions and philosophies can make their differences secondary to the immediate work of leveling social injustice?

    Having then a ringside seat through interfaith development and several years of campus ministry at a Methodist college, I have witnessed the movement of many religious organizations to an abusive and ego-oriented business model. This is not to say that all religious organizations are corrupt. This is to say that shrewd business minds set free in the largely loosely regulated religious arena soon resemble the bloated wood ticks I sometimes pull off my dog. There are too many cases where religious organizations which as non-profit institutions are supposed to represent a zero-sum gain end up using their wealth for self-enrichment or temporal luxury or self-gratification at the expense of others http://www.news-record.com/content/2009/06/27/article/greensboro_college_fending_off_creditors.

    Many religious organizations choose to contribute to their neighborhoods and communities. That’s great. I still think they merit a closer look for at least property tax considerations.

  3. Crabby is correct. And yes, Crabby’s choice to assist is wonderful. “Laudable” is one of those words that is used, from my experience, just before the word, “but.” But that’s my experience.

    The answer to high taxes for entitlements has, for years, been to stop government funding and depend upon churches to provide services. The thought is, basically, “That’s what they’re there for.” Churches turn around and say they’re short of service providers and “can only do so much.”

    But that’s a consideration for another day.

    I guess the simple answer is, to the extent taxes are so high that it matters, advice to your children is, when you look for a community in which to live, check the average tax bill for residents, and check the amount of land that is owned by religious denominations.

  4. Hi Bill. I think you know me well enough to know that I don’t play ‘yes, but’ (as in sure that’s laudable now let’s dismiss it). Service from secular and religious organization is foundational to building communities. The service component now incorporated into academic institutions provides valuable experiences and fulfills necessary functions. I get that. I do that. I love it.

    When my husband moved here one of his key arguments was that this state had low taxes. It also has some of the highest fees in the country. We are compelled to make a donation as a percentage of property value to the volunteer fire house. This is not counted as a tax. In town people are compelled to pay a percentage of their water bill as as a ‘storm water drainage fee’ even in a drought. Sales tax is low but it is applied to what many consider essentials or at least staples such as milk.

    But of course, all religious organizations are exempt from both taxes and many fees because of their status as 501 (C) agencies whether they choose to practice service or not. Their status is not tied to supporting the community.

    Moreover, many of the mainstream churches are organized along business models and they are not required to report to the public or to remain ‘zero-sum’ (spend as much as they take in). If a specific religious organization is truly deserving of exemption because of performance of service they could incorporate under the 501(C) 4 tax code provision (social welfare organization) and as far as I am concerned ‘religious organization’ could be dropped from the 501(C)3 definition.

    Oh, and Bill, please don’t jump on me today. I broke my foot yesterday, I’m waiting to hear from a orthopedist and figuring out how I’m going to get there.


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