Sunday, September 18, 2011

What Does it Cost? Part I, Collecting the Data: 35 Acres and Two Miles of Frontage

What does it cost us, as individual taxpayers, and as a whole community, to grant tax-exempt status to churches?  For this discussion, I am focusing solely on calculating and analyzing the costs, which I don't think has been done in a reliable, methodical fashion, if at all, before.  We often hear of the benefits derived from churches, which are supposedly in exchange for that tax exempt status.  There can be no doubt that some churches provide overall benefits to the community as a whole-  church food banks are a good example of a worthy service.  The question at hand here is not the benefit the churches provide, much of which is fundamentally intangible- the question is what does it cost us, both individually and collectively, for those churches to be exempt from taxation.  Knowing the actual cost allows us to better evaluate how worthwhile we really consider that tradeoff in these times of economic scarcity.

The most significant, measurable, and verifiable religious exemption is the property tax exemption.  Most churches aren't engaged in substantial retail sales or otherwise taxable revenue-generating activities to make much of a difference one way or another in income or sales tax revenues, which accrue to the federal government or the state.  The City, however, relies heavily on property tax revenue to provide essential services to its citizens.  Property exempt from taxation continues to receive city services, while the users of that property benefit by having that property's proportional share of the costs of those services shifted to the remaining taxpayers.

We can get a sense of what impact that exempted property has on an individual's property tax bill and on the community as a whole, if we know how much property is exempted, where it is, and what city services directly benefit it.  To answer these questions, the first step is to gather reliable data.

I gathered the following data items for the cost analysis:
1.  Church street frontage, in feet
2.  Exempted property acreage, by zoning classification
3.  Number of parking spaces, on street vs. offstreet.

Street frontage correlates directly to the city' street maintenance, snow removal, and street lighting, and other costs. The city must maintain all streets within the city limits and allocate scarce maintenance and repair funds to over 75 miles of city streets each year.  Street frontage also correlates to value in commercial real estate.

Exempted property acreage correlates to the total value of all property within the city limits, which is the basis for calculating the levy rate for each property tax payer.  The more acreage exempted, (especially potentially valuable commercial acreage) the lower the total property value and the higher the levy rate for the individual taxpayer. (more details on that calculation in another post.)

Parking space availability has been a contentious issue in the last three church zoning matters, and for good reason.  On street parking spaces are provided and maintained by the city and its taxpayers for the benefit of all citizens.  When a parking-intensive use like a church pops up in a commercial area which is heavily dependent on parking for retail efforts, a tax-exempt entity is benefiting from taxpayer-funded parking to the detriment of taxpaying retailers and their customers.  This is another measurable, definable cost of property tax exemptions.

I used Google Earth, along with my knowledge of local neighborhoods and churches.  I used the Google Earth ruler to measure the street frontage and the total acreage of each church property within the city limits.
The little yellow line on the north side of the LDS parking lot on E. 12th N measures at 293 feet.  Where I could, I also counted out the lined parking spots and kind of make a SWAG on the city-provided on-street parking.

Here are the totals:

That's almost 11,000 feet-about 2.1 miles-of street frontage16.3 tax exempt commercial acres, almost eight full downtown city blocks.  And another19 acres of residential zoned property- almost ten residential city blocksAll occupied and used by non-property tax paying church entities.  And all served by city taxpayer-maintained streets, police, and fire protection.

Who pays to maintain the infrastructure to support this very large presence? We all do- well, everyone does but those exempt entities.

Surely, this has a calculable cost?

Yes, it does, and we'll cover that in the next post.  And don't call me Shirley.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Twenty Churches

Here is a Google Maps image with all 20 Churches within the city limits of Mountain Home, Idaho:
(click on map for a larger image)
1. First Congregational
2.  First Southern Baptist
3.  Faith Lutheran
4.  LDS
5.  Nazarene
6.  Independent Baptist
7.  Church of Christ
8.  No Limits Christian Ministries, Inc.
9.  River of Life
10.  Grace Lutheran
11.  Calvary Chapel
12.  St James Episcopal
13.  Christian and Baptist
14.  Open Door Chrisitian Fellowship
15. Bible Baptist Church
16. Seventh Day Adventist
17. Our Lady of Good Counsel Catholic
18.  Love Abiding
19.  The Rock
20.  LDS Stake Center

We'll analyze the fiscal impact these 19 tax exempt organizations have on the infrastructure and the tax base of the City Of Mountain Home in another post.  

Friday, September 9, 2011

Reader Mail on The No Limits Christian Ministries, Inc. Lawsuit Costs

Mountain Home News Reader Eagle Eye asks:
I know others have asked,  Does the City have any kind of Insurance that will cover any of this mess, also what is the City attorney being paid for his part in it?
The City does carry insurance through ICRMP, which covers almost everything the City could be held liable for- except for this.  ICRMP does not cover lawsuits resulting from zoning or land use decisions, so the money to cover the lawsuit must come from current City General Funds.

The City Attorney's contract covers a set amount of hours representing the City in normal everyday functions, and then a set rate for any hours over and above those.  In this case, the extra hours amounted to around $5,000.00  It's worth noting here that the City Attorney, as he states in his letter to the Chicago-based Mauck and Baker law firm, met with Joe McNeal at no charge to help the church in this process.  We also now have the total from the outside firm, which is around $3500.00.
So the total city attorney fees in the case are roughly $8500 on top of the payment to No Limits Christian Ministries, Inc. of $61,040.11, for a grand total of about $69,500.00.
Where is the money that been spend coming from, also any money that still has to be paid out? Will all the money over the Suit going to cause problems with other City projects due to a lack of funds now? 
The money that has been spent so far, and any money still to be spent, has, and will, come out of the City's general fund, and has already caused problems with other city projects, as well as rippling over into the next fiscal year, as the current year expenditure has now reduced the next fiscal year's cash carryover line by the $61,040.11 amount of the check along with the city's additional legal fees of $8500.

Hope that answers your question, Eagle.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Actual Check- Payable to Chicago-based Mauck and Baker Law Firm

Two things for this Monday: first, there appears to be some confusion over the amount of money the City had to pay.  Here is a copy of the actual check, FedExed to the Chicago-based law firm of Mauck and Baker:
Second, I think it is significant that the expensive (claimed rate of $600 per hour) attorney in this case, John Mauck, was also, according to the Chicago law firm's website, "instrumental in originating parts of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000..."- the very legislation under which his firm brought the suit on behalf of No Limits Christian Ministries, Incorporated.

Look again at the check above, realizing that 61% of the total, $37,040.11, went to the Chicago law firm whose senior partner, John Mauck, was "integral in the enactment of RLUIPA", while "only" $24,000.00 went to No Limits Chrisitian Ministries, Inc.
Get the picture?  Well, here's one:
Chicago Attorney John Mauck, "instrumental in originating" the law that just gained his firm $37,040.11
I'd smile too, if I'd just gotten a check fo $37,040.11 as a result of a law I was instrumental in originating.  Bravo?

Thursday, September 1, 2011

A Reader Comment, My ReSponse. Keep Them Coming!

Update:  If you spot a typo, let me know.  Please.
I was just about to whine for readers to post more comments and questions, critical or otherwise, when this reader comment came in.  Yay!  I'll add my responses to her comment throughout, in red:

The jenexperience wrote:
I'm wondering, and I may be wrong here, but is it appropriate to be commenting in this manner if you are a chair person regarding these proceedings? 
A very good question. It would have been inappropriate for me to comment outside public meetings during the condtional use permitting process, and it would have been inappropriate for me to comment at all while we were negotiating a settlement.  But now both are over, and this case and all these documents are a matter of public record, and I, like anyone, have a right to offer my opinion, which for me is: what a bunch of bullshit I think this whole case was, and is. A minor point of clarification also: The Mayor is the chair of the Council Meetings.  As Council president, I acted as chair in the absence of the Mayor at the May 9 meeting.
You may not like what is being said and done, or a typo here or there, but now you seem to have a vindictive bias against No Limits.
Having been a named defendant in a federal lawsuit, which accused me of denying the constitutional rights of a church congregation, I certainly have a bias in the sense that I deny the allegations contained in that lawsuit.  Clearly, there must be a bias when a lawsuit is filed.  The plaintiffs in the case also had a bias in making the accusation against me.  But am I being vindictive?  I don't think so. Facts are facts. In the case of opinions, I haven't been able to offer my take on this whole debacle publicly since the CUP application was filed, so there is a lot I have been waiting quite a while to say. (And, ask anyone who knows me, I tend to have a lot to say.)
You use quotations to show that you do not agree with something, you come very close to the definition of libel when referring to Clark Williams Sr., and your whole animosity comes out in your blog.
I don't use quotation marks when referring to Clark Williams Sr. Mostly, I use the quotation marks to emphasize the precise use of words which have important legal connotations, especially in reference to Willams' claim to be a "Licensed Christian Counselor" (His words)  
I did use quotations in an editorial fashion around the word "Christian" in the name of the non-profit corporation of which he is an officer or director.  I did so because the behavior exhibited by that corporation in filing a lawsuit against the city and its representatives is the very antithesis of the teachings and sayings attributed to the Christ of the New Testament.  I  maintain that an organization claiming to be Christian, and moreover Christ-Based, is subject to having the legitimacy of that claim called into question (with the quotation marks) when it acts in a manner which the Jesus Christ of the New Testament would have rejected.  I'm open to anyone showing me where any of Jesus' sayings, teachings, or actions point to Him recommending churches file lawsuits against cities for money damages.  (Note- Christ only. Use a red-letter New Testament.) 
I have quite a few Christian friends, and not a single one of them, nor I, believes the church acted in a Christ-like manner in this case. So I think putting "Christian" in quotation marks in the church's corporate title is appropriate.
I think Clark Williams Sr. is probably a pretty decent guy.  I can't say the same about his beliefs, or what his organization has done allegedly in the furtherance of those beliefs.  My real animosity, though is toward the nonsense as a whole wherever it is to be found- tax exempt organizations using taxpayer-funded court systems to take away those taxpayers' funds, religious-based licensing exemptions and a host of other benefits given to religious organizations under the guise of religious freedom.  That's where my animosity is directed.
It's almost like you're taking this personally, and it's not personal. If it were, you would know the type of people you are discussing, and you would not place quotes around the word Christian in your blog.
It's not personal?  The filing of this document in Federal Court on June 1, 2011 made it a personal action by the church against me:
That's my name on the summons, telling me, personally, that a lawsuit has been filed against me, personally, in Federal Court.  So, yeah, it's personal.  And again, not a single Christian friend of mine thinks filing the lawsuit was Christ-like behavior, so, again, the editorial quotes around the word Christian in the corporate name of the church in my opinion are fair game.
If I'm out of line then so be it, but I feel you may be operating in a dangerous area of slander and libel.
Regards, Jen 
I don't thnk you're out of line, Jen.  You ask pertinent, relevant questions and make a few claims, a couple of which I think I have shown to be, in my opinion, demonstrably false. I appreciate you taking the time to write your comments and I think your comments are worth my time to respond.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A Response to Ed O'Reilly's Letter to the Editor

I'd like to respond to Ed's August 31 Letter to the Editor in the Mountain Home News: (emphasis added, my comments in red)

Dear Editor:
Referencing the headline used last week concerning the expensive lawsuit to the city, I would expect less bias from the Mountain Home News. It was worded as if the cost to the city was caused by the church's lawsuit.
Fact:  If the church had not filed the lawsuit, there would have been no cost to the city.  It was purely the church's choice to spring the lawsuit upon us, completely without warning.  Even during the contentious Catholic church permitting process (in which Ed provided thoughtful and helpful testimony, by the way) the applicant gave clear warnings of potential litigation whenever they found some part of the process too far over the line.  And we yielded, when so warned and were potentially in the wrong.  There is no reason No Limits couldn't have shown some common decency and done the same, at least warning us they considered the CUP process itself to be the problem.
Who really was the perpetrator and who was the victim?
I believe the church was the victim. The city council initiated the problem, along with their advisors, and is the cause of the cost to the city.
The City council  most certainly did not initiate the problem.  It was the church, not the City, that chose: first, to purchase (apparently with insufficient due diligence) and then to alter and occupy, a facility with the significant problems found at the Salvation Army property.  When these significant shortcomings were pointed out to the applicant, very early in the process, the City went well above and well beyond its legal obligations in helping the church to succeed, even on the inherently problematic property.  Here are relevant parts of City Attorney Jay Friedly's letter detailing the extraordinary steps the city took to help the applicant succeed: (emphasis added)
The defendants feel that their offer of settlement is very fair. At no time and in no way did any of the defendants, including the City of Mountain Home, ever deny NLCM the use of the property in question because the proposed use was for religious services. The only issues were the crosswalks, landscaping, sewage disposal and parking. The City and its employees assisted NLCM in every way that they could to help NLCM resolve these issues.
    NLCM started remodeling the building without a building permit. A building permit is required for any kind of commercial remodel. The City could have issued a citation for this violation of the building code, but it did not. The City worked with NLCM to assist it in obtaining a building permit that was issued on November 15, 2010, which was approved and paid for on November 23, 2010.

    NLCM installed a sign on the building without the required permit. The City could have issued a citation for this violation but it did not. The City worked with NLCM in obtaining the required permit after the fact.
The parking at the building in question does not meet the City’s parking ordinance. The City has taken numerous steps to inform NLCM about the City’s ordinance and has attempted to help them comply with the ordinance.

    Mayor Rist asked John Matthews of the City’s Public Works Department to measure the property in question and suggest how the number of parking spaces could be maximized and still comply with parking standards. I have enclosed a copy of the engineered drawing prepared by John Matthews showing the parking spaces on the existing property. The City does not usually do this and it is not required by any law or ordinance. This was done by the City in an attempt to assist NLCM in complying with the City’s parking requirements.

    Former Mayor Joe McNeal, on behalf of NLCM, stopped by my office and asked about the parking. I made a copy of the City’s parking ordinance and I gave that to him. I reviewed the parking ordinance with him. I also made a summary of the City’s parking ordinance and emailed it to Mr. McNeal on February 19, 2011. I have enclosed a copy of that summary for your reference. The City wanted to assist NLCM in knowing what was required by the City’s parking ordinance, especially concerning the documentation required to meet the parking requirements through the use of property owned by a third-party.

    Bonnie Harper, the City Planner, provided NLCM with the names and telephone numbers of the personnel from the Union Pacific Railroad’s real estate department so NLCM could contact the Union Pacific Railroad and arrange for parking on Union Pacific’s property that was adjacent to the property being leased by NLCM.

    The City was willing to allow NLCM to have a gravel parking lot on property that it would lease from the Union Pacific Railroad, rather than requiring the paving of the property.

    As I write this letter NLCM has not complied with the City’s parking ordinance and is not connected to the City’s sewer system and thus has not complied with the City and State sanitation requirements. I mention this to try and emphasize the fact that the City of Mountain Home has indeed cooperated with NLCM and has tried to assist in every way possible for NLCM to meet the City’s requirements.
The City of Mountain Home went out of its way to help this church comply with the most basic requirements, required of any applicant, church or not.  And in return for this extra effort, the city was sued.  I do not see how any reasonable person can read what the city tried to do to help and conclude that the church was a 'victim' here.
The church members were protecting themselves and their right as established under law. Fortunately, in this case, the courts agreed on who was the perpetrator by upholding the existing laws.
The court agreed to no such thing: both parties agreed to settle out of court, and this statement in the release and settlement agreement makes it clear that there was no "perpetrator:"

"That it is understood and agreed by NLCM that this settlement is the compromise of doubtful and disputed claims, and that this agreement is not to be construed as an admission of liability on the part of the parties hereby released, and that said City of Mountain Home denies liability therefor and intends merely to avoid litigation and buy its peace.
The church, No Limits Christian Ministries, Incorporated, signed that statement, agreeing that its claims were "doubtful and disputed."  Had they considered their claims meritorious enough to prevail in court, they wouldn't have agreed to this settlement.  It's simply not reasonable to make the assertion that the City was wholly at fault in this case, and the church's own statement above proves that.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

An Alert Reader's Excellent Comments

I received this comment today, and it is a great example of how frustrating posting comments to the Mountain Home News comments section can be.  A well organized, well articulated set of critiques or questions such as these might not get the well thought out response deserving of the time and thought put into them.

Here, the commenter will (we hope) receive well thought out rebuttals or answers to the topic at hand, and not a bunch of randomly capitalized and punctuated rambling and incoherent diatribes.

For now, I leave you with this excellent comment, now promoted to blog post, and will provide my answers and commentary when able:

Comment from "Vic":

First off – great job on helping to set the record straight. Secondly, I read the complaint when it was first made public and couldn’t believe that any court would agree that it was valid. Reading it again hasn’t changed my mind. Reading through the documentation you’ve posted makes surer that it’s groundless. To me the mere mention of RLUIPA was supposed to be enough to make the city buckle.

Most of the points in the claim seem ridiculous; paragraph 8 especially. No one forced them into that temporary location, and if their members didn’t want to worship where others did, or have the capacity to care for their own children during a two hour service – why is that the city’s fault? Did they survey the community to get the data to back up paragraphs 48-52, who did the survey, where are the results? Again to me, this is entire complaint is baseless.

The parking/Crosswalk situation falls to the “church/counseling business”. If they don’t have safe, adequate parking or access from the parking to their facility, acquiring it needs to be built into their business plan. Pretty simple. The sewage situation had to be obviously underrated for their planned operation. Why didn’t they address that and plan funding accordingly? That’s what any business would do.

Alcohol letter: what is a “present of future commercial activities relating to the sale or consumption of alcohol”? Are there local businesses planning to give away alcohol as a present in the near future, or did the three people who signed the document not proof it before having it notarized? Just wondering what level of professionalism we are dealing with here. It’s one thing to comment on a blog or online forum and have typos or misspellings…but not in a professional document that is known to be destined for the public domain.

I don’t understand why any church would have to incorporate. Aren’t religious organizations covered legally because they are religious organizations, without requiring incorporation? Then they incorporate two businesses and not the “church”, it’s not consistent. I realize there are some “churches” incorporate, I just don’t know why.

Licensing and certifications, in my opinion, should be legally recognized and publically registered for any field (religious or not) if they would require licensing or certification had they not been a religious organization (self-proclaimed or not). Counseling, general construction, vending hotdogs, everything that is in a sphere of operation that would normally require certification and/or licensure should not be exempt because they affiliate themselves with a religion. I know there are plenty of actual licensed and certified counselors that are faith based – some even take Tricare!

If I’m looking to break into a business (and make no mistake, that’s all this is), I would really have had my bases covered to be become a presence in that given field. That doesn’t appear to have happened in this case.

Anyway, that’s a couple of things off the top of my head on this subject. Good blog you have going here. Can’t wait to get to the rest of the story.

Vic August 30, 2011 12:02 PM