Pastors in 18 counties do not want their churches to be taxed!
You may have heard of the issue of churches being assessed (or taxed) by the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District (MWCD). The background is that there appears to have been a law established around 1918 to compensate for flooding, at that time. However, it seems that recently the MWCD had discovered a loophole in the law that would allow them to assess non-profit organizations and churches. This is nothing more than a backdoor tax. To tax churches would be a gradual erosion of keeping churches exempt from taxes. There may be a variety of opinions on whether churches should, or should not, pay taxes. However, if we put this in context with the recent eminent domain issue that municipalities can use eminent domain to take church property, well, it is an aggression that needs to be addressed.
The following is a chronology of the issue of taxing churches:
April 3, 2006: Melanie Elsey passed an e-mail to me from Pastor Floyd Stanfill, of Tuscarawas County, concerning a discovery of the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District's ability to levy taxes against all churches and Christian Camp properties within the district. A pastors' meeting was scheduled for the next day.
April 4, 2006: I attended the pastors' meeting, along with close to 30 other pastors. Also attending were, State Representative John Hagan, Judge Jim James and Muskingum Watershed Conservatory District representative Darrin Lautenschleger. Rep. Hagan and Judge James both serve the Stark County area. Pastor Stanfill was master of ceremonies and introduced each speaker. Questions were taken after each person's talk. From everything I was hearing, it appeared that the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District was starting the implementation of assessing churches. I was to find out later that an "assessment" and a "tax" are the exact same thing. The protest by pastors would be that there has been an historic line of not taxing churches and that this action crossed that line. Please read my summary of that meeting.
As the judge was speaking, I had learned that there is a Conservancy Court that oversees the Conservancy District in which it serves, by way of approving or rejecting their plans of operations and funding. During that meeting, it was unclear if the solution would be to appeal to this panel of judges to exempt churches or appeal to the legislature to change the Ohio Revised Code that empowered the conservancy districts to tax churches.
As I met with Pastor Stanfill after the meeting, it became clear the issue was just starting to heat up. Later that day, I discussed the issue with Melanie and I concluded that some kind of legislation was needed to create a permanent solution, either by way of amending a piece of legislation with a permanent correction to the issue, or a stand alone piece of legislation.
April 5, 2006: I attended the Canton Ministerial Association meeting and distributed information to all pastors that were interested. I was then invited, by a pastor at this meeting, to another association of pastors in Canton.
April 6, 2006: At the invitation of the lead pastor, I attended the IMA Canton Pastors' Fellowship. I gave a presentation that lasted close to ten minutes and passed out materials. A Christian Church Camp was in attendance and appreciated the information, as they were in the conservancy district and wanted to know what would happen to their property. The lead pastor extended an open invitation to a few remaining meetings on the schedule.
April 6-10, 2006: As I further researched the issue, it became clear that the conservancy districts around the state were empowered to oversee the upkeep of dams, reservoirs, waterways, and land formations to provide an equitable distribution of flood control measures throughout the district. The Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District (MWCD) encompasses 18 counties, either in part, or total. The district encompasses 75% of Stark County. I attempted to find out if the church, I am attending, had indeed been assessed, with, or without our knowledge. I located this information by looking up the parcel numbers on Stark County's online GIS Mapping Utility (IE only), then inputting it in the MWCD website (for Stark County churches). It was, indeed, true.
Also through research, it became clear that the Ohio Revised Code, which empowered conservancy districts around Ohio, was ORC 6101 TITLE LXI WATER SUPPLY - SANITATION - DITCHES (see the Online ORC. In addition, I discovered that this statute was revised in the year 2000 through HB 617 during the session of the 123rd General Assembly. Here is what I discovered. These bullets come directly out of the Final Analysis of HB 617:
- Replaces references in the Conservancy District Law to a conservancy district's power to levy "taxes" with references to the power to levy "assessments."
- Establishes that an annual maintenance assessment collected by a conservancy district must not be less than $2.
- For purposes of provisions that require notice of certain information regarding a conservancy district's activities to be published, reduces the number of times that the notice must be published from once a week for three consecutive weeks in two newspapers to once in one newspaper.
- Taxes and assessments Replacement of term "tax" with term "assessment"
Under continuing law, conservancy districts may levy assessments on real property and on political subdivisions upon which benefits have been appraised in order to pay the costs of executing the district's plan. The assessment must be apportioned to and levied on each tract of land or other property and each political subdivision in the district in proportion to the benefits appraised, and not in excess. (Sec. 6101.48.) The Conservancy District Law makes reference in various provisions to this authority to levy assessments. Previously, numerous provisions in that law also referred to a district's authority to levy taxes or to levy "taxes and assessments." The act eliminates language stating that a conservancy district has the power to exercise the right of taxation, together with all references to "taxes," and instead refers only to "assessments."2 (Secs. 6101.08, 6101.41, 6101.44, 6101.51, 6101.57, 6101.59, 6101.60, 6101.61, 6101.65, 6101.71, and 6101.73.) However, the act retains law requiring a political subdivision to levy a property tax at a uniform rate when it is necessary to provide sufficient funds to pay an annual assessment levied against the political subdivision by a conservancy district (sec. 6101.61).
- It is unclear whether the elimination of the term "tax" is a substantive change or a mere clarification. Black's Law Dictionary makes a distinction between an assessment and a tax. An assessment usually is valid only where the property assessed receives some special benefit differing from the benefit that the general public enjoys whereas a tax usually is levied for the support of government and for all public needs. Since a conservancy district generally only has the authority to levy taxes or assessments on benefited properties, it is possible that elimination of the term "tax" and use of the term "assessment" is a mere clarification.
- No matter what the Final Analysis said, it became clear, that this particular session of the Ohio General Assembly set up the ability of conservancy districts to simply change the terminology of "tax" to "assessment". It can only be reasoned that this change was to construct a more palatable expression. It is amazing that so many citizens never knew this was coming as I have found no one, even to this present day, that knew anything about this before March 2006, let alone anything about conservancy districts.
In researching the Internet, it was becoming clear that pastors from other counties were rising up against this "taxing churches" issue. More and more articles were becoming available through print media.
April 12, 2006: As I was invited to, again, present to the IMA Ministerial Association, which lasted around ten minutes. I passed out the same information as the week before, including a few other items.
April 13- May 10, 2006: I continued to research the issues of constructing legislation. I had discovered, by the help of another person, a section of statute language that was similar to ORC § 6101. ORC § 1710 gives some assistance to crafting draft language and will be shown to legislators.
April 18, 2006: I receive notice that four pastors are meeting with Ohio Senate President Bill Harris, with this declaration:
Our primary objections are:
- Churches have historically been tax exempt.
- There has always been a separation of the State from the affairs of the church. Our forefathers said that "the power to tax is the power to control." And they believed that the State should not control the church.
- For seventy years the laws governing the Watershed Districts in the State of Ohio called the assessments "taxes." The word "tax" wasn't changed to "assessment" until 2000.
- Churches are benevolent, nonprofit, charitable organizations that do a lot of good in communities based on donations. The good that we do in communities will be diminished by the amount of this "tax."
According to the report, the meeting seemed to accomplish only one thing and that was the issue started instilling a growing concern in Senator Harris. However, nothing was promised to the four pastors.
April 28, 2006: I receive a report that there had been a meeting at the Marlite Conference Center in New Philadelphia, Ohio. The following report was issued:
Apparently, last Tuesday's meeting in Ashland County with Senator Bill Harris and others had significant impact. And the pressure from churches and legislators is making headway. MWCD is feeling the heat.
The MWCD's approach is to leave it up to the Legislators to decide who is going to be exempt and who isn't. I don't believe that any amount of pressure is going to convince MWCD to make the exemptions internally. They don't want to make those decisions themselves. But they will abide by the State's decisions. Hoopingarner said they would be working with the Legislators over the next couple of weeks to see if they could work these things out. All of this brings me to few points.
- I believe that ongoing discussions with the judges and MWCD officials are helpful but not essential. The judges must determine whether or not the assessment is equitable and fair. They will most likely not enter into the debate of exemptions.
- Hoopingarner stated that some watershed districts do exempt schools and others assess the schools. That tells us that watershed districts have made exemptions beyond the seventeen spelled out by the State of Ohio. The argument that exemptions can't be made except by the State is mute.
- The battle is squarely in Columbus. And the time is now. MWCD is desperate to get this assessment approved by the Judges at the August meeting. Other groups are geared up to derail that train. But regardless of whether they are successful or not in delaying or derailing the MWCD, we need to be positioned for either outcome.
From our perspective, we need to be persuading the Senators and Representatives NOW. The churches need to be at the table before MWCD gets there so that the representatives are well versed about our concerns.
Here is an open letter response to the advisory board meeting of the MWCD at the Marlite Conference Center. Please consider adding your name to the list of supporters!
May 11, 2006: I was invited to travel to the state capitol building with a delegation of pastors to attend an informal hearing called by State Senate President, Bill Harris. Senator Harris wanted to give the MWCD another opportunity to clearly explain their goals and see if there was a way that pastors could work with the current situation. It became clear that there was only one recourse for pastors, clearly concerned on the principle of not having their churches taxed by way of assessment: solve the issue by crafting legislation. Please read my summary of that meeting.
To this date, there is a movement starting, to position pastors in this issue of concern and enable them to step up to the plate to represent their church, no matter what denomination or affiliation. I still have open invitations to speak to pastors, which I will continue to educate.
Clearly, there is a growing assault on North American Christianity by attempting to displace Christian churches out of existence. On its own, this last statement could sound over dramatized. Except when one puts together the growing concern of eminent domain and zoning requirements to seize church properties, along with the scrutinizing of IRS requirements, it is becoming apparent that Christians need to become aware and pray for wisdom. Otherwise, it is conceivable that churches, as we know them today, may become unlawful. All it could take is for the majority of Christians to allow encroachments, one at a time.
Good News! The proposed MWCD assessment has been delayed until at least 2008. The work is not over, but this is a major victory in the fight against the MWCD.
The next meeting of the Concerned Citizens Coalition to STOP MWCD will be on November 14th at Harvest Christian Center in North Canton. Call Assoc. Pastor Mark Stevenson at 330-417-9660 for details.