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Budget woes and how local activism
may get churches to pay up

 

By MarieAlena Castle
Communications Director, Atheists For Human Rights

 

The Chinese character for crisis is the same as for opportunity. Revenue shortfalls are causing a major crisis nationally and at local levels across the country. No one wants their taxes raised but it will surely come to that. Now think of all those tax-free churches and how we pay more because they pay nothing. There is an opportunity here. Noting that, I sent the following email to the chair of my neighborhood association (notice that I did not mention churches directly, to avoid instant rejection of the idea):

Just a thought re this budget crisis. One-fourth (25.4%) of the property in Minneapolis, est. market value of $8,681,773,200, is tax exempt. Some of this of course is government property, but the rest may or may not be doing something that clearly justifies tax exemption.

Just a thought re this budget crisis. One-fourth (25.4%) of the property in Minneapolis, est. market value of $8,681,773,200, is tax exempt. Some of this of course is government property, but the rest may or may not be doing something that clearly justifies tax exemption. Tax exemption is allowed by law but why can't there be a fee for services, such as fire and police protection and snow removal, etc. This would surely bring in a good chunk of cash. Put a sunset provision on it, if absolutely necessary, so it ends when the crisis is past. Many nonprofits do not own property — they lease it, so they are already paying property taxes thru the lease cost.

If they can manage, so can the others. It is not fair for some property to get a free ride while others have to make up the revenue shortfall because of that.

The neighborhood association chair apparently thought this idea had merit, because he passed it on to Minneapolis mayor R. T. Rybak. Mayor Rybak then sent me the following reply, which included my original email:

Hi, Marie ... Jeff Strand passed along this message, which makes a lot of sense ... We have been thinking about ways to get at this in some way ...

Some cities actually try to tax these properties, others suggest voluntary fees that are approximately worth the services that are being provided, etc. We are looking at that but don't want to do anything radical ... There are also variations of this that include trying to find the line between what is a tax exempt use vs. what is a tax exempt group using it for general purpose ...

Thanks for the thought and we'll keep looking at this ... Keep the ideas coming!

It appears that this tax-the-freeloaders idea is under some consideration. It may actually go somewhere if more citizens suggest it. Given the present fiscal crisis, it may be that the politically unthinkable — charging a fee for city services to churches, only some of which do charity, but only part-time (along with, necessarily by law, the real full-time nonprofits) — may now be not only thinkable but doable. Tax fairness has a great appeal to voters, especially when maintaining an unfair system creates burdens that in better times would be shrugged off. Pass this idea along to your mayors and city councils. The time has come.

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