Stripping Away Tax Exemption
City Eyes Taxing Shuttered Churches
By Edward Shanahan
In the wake of the shuttering earlier this year of three Northampton Catholic churches, City Hall is looking to return to the tax rolls those church properties as well as the closed parish church in Leeds, which together have a total assessed value of more than $8 million.
If the plan gathers momentum, the city could eventually issue property tax bills to the Roman Catholic Bishop of Springfield, the owner of closed St. Mary’s, St. John Cantius, and Blessed Sacrament churches. Theoretically, these three large properties could yield nearly $90,000 in tax revenue.
St. Catherine’s Church on Main Street in Leeds closed on Feb. 4, 2007, and has continued to enjoy its property tax exemption during that three-year period. The parish church, which for several months has featured a prominent for sale sign, has a current assessed value of $1,449,680 and could add nearly $20,000 more in tax revenue.
In a March 10 interview in her office, Mayor Clare Higgins said ”We are exploring what options there are relative to taxing those properties … I believe if they no longer are being used for tax exempt purposes they are taxable, and we need to look at that ….”
She said discussions have begun with other communities about how to proceed with efforts to tax the church properties. Meanwhile, Joan Sarafin, chairman of Board of Assessors, told downstreet.net that her department also has been looking into bringing the closed churches back on the tax rolls and has consulted with a tax attorney as part of those discussions.
Of course, the city’s intention to strip away the tax exemption from these specific properties is by no means assured. By law and tradition churches, educational institutions and countless other not-for-profit organizations are exempt from property taxes s well as other forms of taxation as long as their operations remain consistent with their stated non-profit educational or religious mission. In fact, along with the extensive property owned by Smith College, Northampton is home to a substantial inventory of property exempt from local property taxes.
However, Higgins and others at City Hall believe strongly that if some of the Springfield Diocese’s churches in Northampton are no longer used for religious purposes but only await disposal then the city is entitled to bill and collect taxes on the structures and land on which they sit. At issue will be, of course, what portion of the church properties, even with the three churches closed, are being used by the Diocese for religious purposes.
Asked about the a possible basis for returning a church to the tax rolls, Bob Bliss, a spokesman for the state Department of Revenue, said the “the rule is a church is exempt from taxes as long as it is being used as a house of worship.”
Given that provision, he said, the other side of the equation is that “ if it is not being used as a house of worship” that “raises the possibility that a community could tax such a property.” Taxing a church, he said, “is not goofy on the face of it.”
Bliss said a case currently tied up in Suffolk Superior Court, involves an effort by the town of Scituate to tax St. Francis X. Cabrini parish, which was closed by the Archdiocese of Boston. The suit against the town was brought by the Archdiocese, which claims it is entitled to a tax exemption on the property. The plaintiff has also taken its case to the state Appellate Tax Board.
Bliss speculated that a decision in the Scituate case, which is being carefully watched by many cities and towns, could establish a precedent in the area of municipal taxation.
An effort to obtain a response from the Diocese of Springfield to Mayor Higgins intention to move ahead with taxing closed parish buildings in Northampton was unsuccessful.
The Diocese announced late last year that it would be consolidating its several Northampton churches as a cost savings strategy.
The largest, St. Mary’s of Assumption Church at 3 Elm St., would be closed along with St. John Cantius Church at 10 Hawley St. and consolidated with and based at Sacred Heart Church at 101 King Street.
Blessed Sacrament at 336 Elm St. would be closed and merged with the parish at Annunciation Church on Beacon Street in Florence.
Almost three years ago St. Catherine’s in Leeds was with merged St. Mary’s Church in Haydenville.
As a consequence, as of this past January, the previous total of six Northampton Catholic churches has shrunk two.
As far as the Diocese’s church real estate, which includes church structures and affiliated rectory buildings, is concerned, the valuation numbers are as follows:
St. Mary’s: buildings, land, including rectory, $2,507,860; St. John Cantius: land, rectory and third structure, $2,830.660; Blessed Sacrament: land and church, $1,089, 530; rectory and land, $650,900; St. Catherine’s: land and buildings, $1,449,680.
The total valuation of the four mothballed church properties is $8,528,630, which potentially could yield annual total property tax revenue of $107,799 based on the current tax rate.
For the record, a Northampton property tax rate for fiscal 2010 is $12.46 tax rate per each $1,000 of assessed valuation or .01246 times the total valuation of a property.
Still being operated by the Diocese are Sacred Heart Church, with a current valuation of $2,696,440 and Annunciation Church, with a valuation of $1,987,560.
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