Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Alaska State Rep. Berta Gardner Introduces HB305 To Remove Property Tax Exemption For Teachers' Residences; Anchorage Baptist Temple The Target

Update April 15th: The bill described in this post was ultimately withdrawn by Rep. Gardner when it became bogged down in the House Community and Regional Affairs Committee. House rules allowed her to attempt to insert it as an amendment on the House floor to another bill involving municipal taxes. The amendment failed by an 11-28 vote on April 15th.

Alaska State Rep. Berta Gardner (D-Anchorage) has introduced a bill which would amend AS 29.45.030(b) by deleting the mandatory property tax exemption for residences owned or occupied by teachers in religious schools originally permitted by HB334 in 2006.

The bill, designated HB305 and co-sponsored by Rep. Lindsey Holmes (D-Anchorage) not only would delete church-owned homes occupied by religious school teachers from the list of properties approved for mandatory ministerial exemptions, but also provides a definition of "minister". To qualify for a ministerial exemption, a minister must meet two criteria:

(1). Must be ordained, commissioned, or licensed as a minister according to standards of the religious organization for its ministers, AND

(2). Must be employed by the religious organization to carry out a ministry of that religious organization.

The second criterion already poses a prospective problem. What's the definition of the word "employed"? Would this still cover religious organizations that do NOT pay their pastoral leaders? The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not pay a salary to its branch presidents, bishops, and stake presidents, so if "employed" is defined as getting a salary or financial compensation, it could prevent LDS pastoral leaders from seeking ministerial property tax exemptions for their residences in the future if they choose to apply. As far as I know, no LDS pastoral leader in Anchorage gets a ministerial property tax exemption for his own home, and the LDS Church does not provide residences for its pastoral leaders.

HB305 also exempts church complexes, church schools, nonprofit hospitals, and buildings used for charitable purposes. It also exempts parking lots required by local ordinance for parking near any such structure. The bill will get a hearing in the House Community and Regional Affairs Committee, but Sen. Hollis French is pessimistic about its potential fate in the State Senate.

Note that the bill's list specifies mandatory exemptions; subordinate jurisdictions throughout the state retain the power to add additional exemptions at their own level if they choose.

The Anchorage Daily News also provides other information. The municipal assessor's office has provided the Anchorage Assembly with a list of church residences that benefited from the exemption. The list shows that of the 79 tax-free religious properties in Anchorage, only Anchorage Baptist Temple claims an exemption for teachers. ABT leads the list with 14 exempt properties, followed by the Salvation Army and the Roman Catholic Church with nine each. So far, there has been no specific reaction from Pastor Jerry Prevo, nor has Gardner's Republican opponent in the upcoming election for Senate District H, Don Smith, weighed in. Smith not only is a Republican, but is also a conservative.

Even though Jerry Prevo has acted strictly legal and is willing to accept whatever judgment is rendered by the municipal assessor, this issue is really becoming a thorn in his side. It's provided anti-Christian bigots with an excuse to spew their venom all over the ADN discussion boards. However, there are honest citizens who are genuinely concerned about the effects this controversy will have upon Anchorage Baptist Temple. In an LTE published by ADN on February 1st, Philip Elrod writes "Rev. Prevo has done a lot of good work in Alaska, but many will end up remembering him for the expanding tax scandal instead of his good work, and if it's determined that what he did was actually illegal (and at the minimum it pushed the law and looked very shady, which is partly what 1 Thessalonians 5:22 refers to), the cost especially to his own congregation will be a big one. All Christian leaders need to take this to heart. No Christians are perfect, and most are far from it, but when we slip, we need to admit so with humility and change our course".

One way Pastor Prevo could turn down the heat is to voluntarily agree to allow the teachers' residences to go back on the tax rolls in 2013 as a good faith gesture. That would then put ABT on the same playing field as other churches within Anchorage.

Update March 3rd: The Anchorage Daily News reports that HB305 has hit a dead end and is buried in committee. Rep. Gardner's next gambit will be to draft a substitute bill allowing local governments to decide whether to exempt religious educator housing from local property taxes. While this wouldn't outlaw the tax breaks, it wouldn't automatically grant them, either. Instead, municipalities would control the issue. That's the approach the Alaska Municipal League told the committee it favors, since the lost revenue would affect local governments, not the state.

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