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Tuesday, August 18, 2015

How to pay less taxes, Part 7: Get religion

And now, how starting a house of worship can save you big bucks....

By Will Collette

This is another installment in our continuing series that illustrate the way Charlestown property tax policies are shaped to reflect priorities that favor some categories of taxpayers over the general population. 

As a general principal, there's nothing wrong with that - few would argue that it's a good thing to give tax breaks to veterans, the disabled and low-income elderly. Such policies are generally accepted if everyone knows about them and has a fair shot at qualifying.

Nearly all Charlestown property owners are paying their new property taxes this month (don't forget - you're delinquent if you don't pay by August 31st) at the new $10.11 per $1,000 rate, the eighth straight year we've had a rate hike since 2008 when the Charlestown Citizens Alliance took control of town government and promised to keep taxes low.

For one category of Charlestown property owner, there's no concern about what the tax rate might be since they are eligible for a total exemption of all property tax. That category is houses of worship (churches, temples, etc.) and the dwellings (parsonages) of the leader of the religious group.

 



Charlestown provides a total tax exemption for property owned or held in trust for a religious organization and used for religious purposes. The exemption is extended to the land (up to one acre or the minimum lot size for its zoning class), dwellings and other buildings.


Only three such exemptions are granted in Charlestown, although the total value of the property exemption to the three totals $2,235,300 in the last re-assessment.


I’m surprised that our nearly 8,000 resident souls (not to mention all the visitors) don’t need more ministering to than that. Plus, the diversity of religious institutions is poor – in the phone book, there’s St. Andrew’s Lutheran, three Baptist churches and an Episcopalian church. There’s St. Mary’s Catholic Church’s rectory in Carolina. But only three exempt properties.


Charlestown hosts no Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu or other houses of worship. At least there are none exempted from the tax rolls.

Nor are there any of the interesting new types of denomination listed in the phone book. I had expected to see Ron Areglado's ashram, the Center for Moral and Ethical Leadership, dedicated to peaceful contemplation of how to appear moral and ethical without having to go through the bother of being so. He might qualify for a tax exemption, if not as a church, then as a "retreat center" under Charlestown's tax law (see below).


One of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster's most famous
works of religious art. I might have it done in stained glass for my church

Also missing was one of my favorite denominations, the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. My nephew bought me a Certificate of Ordination as a minister, so naturally, I'm thinking about the tax benefits of forming a church.


If you successfully form a new house of worship here in Charlestown and engage in religious activity, your prize could be a plenary indulgence from property tax.


Freedom of religion is enshrined in the First Amendment of our Constitution, and the Supreme Court does not define what constitutes a religion or religious practices (except, on occasion, to define what is not). So what you do with the information in this final installment in the series is up to you, your conscience and Tax Assessor Ken Swain.


Here is the section on tax exemptions for religious properties from Charlestown’s ordinance database:


CHAPTER 192 TAXATION 


[HISTORY: Adopted by the Town Council of the Town of Charlestown as indicated in article histories. Amendments noted where applicable.]

GENERAL REFERENCES

ARTICLE VII Parsonages - Real Estate Assessment Exemption (§ 192-33 — § 192-34) 


Editor's Note: Former Art. VII, Business Tangible Property, adopted 5-11-1998 by Ord. No. 212, was repealed 5-13-2002 by Ord. No. 244.

§ 192-33 Purpose. 


The purpose of this article shall be to provide a real estate property tax exemption in total, for dwellings and buildings that include housing, the land on which they stand not exceeding one acre in size, or a minimum lot size for zone in which the building is located, owned by or held in trust for any religious organization and actually used by its officiating clergy, used as a convent, nunnery or retreat center by its religious order.

§ 192-34 Eligibility. 


A.  Subject to further legislative authorization by the General Assembly, dwellings and buildings that include housing, the land on which they stand, not exceeding one acre in size, or the minimum lot size for zone in which the dwelling house is located, owned by or held in trust for any religious organization and actually used by its officiating clergy, used as a convent, nunnery or retreat center by its religious order.

B.  This ordinance shall be effective only upon passage of enabling legislative authorization by the General Assembly and all taxes shall be retroactively abated for those on the Tax Roll as of December 31, 2005.