I’m neither a lawyer, nor a real estate agent. The only expertise I claim in the Anchorage Baptist Temple property tax matter is in what I read in the paper, what I ask people and what I experience myself.
The other day I asked the St. Benedict’s staff members who attended daily mass about their property taxes. As far as I can tell, no employees at the church get any breaks from their property taxes. The principal at the parish school, Lumen Christi, rents his home and I did not get to ask teachers, since the school year hasn’t started yet.
From what I read in the paper, the Anchorage Baptist Temple claims it owns the residences of a number of staff members of the church and therefore claims exemption from property taxes. According to the newspaper, as I remember, the former daughter-in-law of the pastor claimed her ex-husband had, in effect, at least partial ownership of the home he was living with, and that’s how the tax dodge was discovered.
Because the municipal assessor’s office ruled the church was engaging in legal fiction to keep employees from paying property taxes like the rest of us, fellow columnist Jim Crawford claims the decision violated the church’s constitutional right.
I respectfully disagree. Allocating tax breaks to employees of only one church, in effect, amounts to favoring one church over all the other churches in Anchorage. That's the real violation of the First Amendment. The pastor at St. Benedict’s does not own his residence. He has an apartment in the church’s office building. The property belongs to the church. He has no financial interest in it. When he gets reassigned, he has to pack up his stuff and make way for the new pastor.
As far as I can tell, the other churches have similar arrangements. The Unitarians go one step further. They volunteer to pay taxes on their property even though their nonprofit status exempts them from the property tax assignment.
Yet, Mr. Crawford asks, “Why is ABT singled out among the tax-exempt organizations of Anchorage for punitive treatment?”
He reminds me of the Fairbanks woman who wanted me to take her son to lunch after he stole money from my wallet. When I explained that he should be punished for stealing instead of being rewarded, she argued that making him give back what he stole was punishing him.
My response to Mr. Crawford is when did paying your bills like everyone else become “punitive treatment?” If there are other churches that buy houses for staff members to dodge property taxes, maybe Mr. Crawford can tell us.
The message I get from Mr. Crawford’s essay is that denying the ABT special treatment is somehow persecuting it. I have yet to understand why it’s entitled to special treatment.
It’s a sign of the times, I think, that one of the richest and most powerful churches in town is posing as a victim. Remember when rich city dwellers complained about being second-class citizens when the feds ruled people in rural areas should have a preference in hunting and fishing in their own backyards in times of scarcity? Or a more contemporary example: the argument that the state should charge oil companies less for the oil they take from Alaska despite record high oil prices. What entitles oil companies to bennies unavailable to Alaska small businesses that do not take oil out of Alaska?
Then there’s the Taco Bell story. Someone perpetrated a hoax that the company was about to open a Bethel restaurant. When the hoax was revealed, the company hired a television crew to chronicle the arrival of a helicopter with 10,000 free tacos in Bethel. Then the company reportedly applied to the state for a subsidy for its publicity stunt.
I’m also reminded of the auto executives who went to Washington to beg for federal bailout funds. I know of no execs who drove there; I’m told a number of them, if not most of them, flew in their private jets.
We now have a system in which the government taxes people who earn their money by working on a job more than people who make money simply by investments. Now, some politicians want to exempt those who don’t work for a living from paying any taxes at all. I have yet to figure out why not having to work for a living entitles you to subsidies from people who do.
I guess the very word “entitlement” is taking on an entirely new meaning. In the old days, you were entitled to Medicare, social security or pensions if you earned them by working and by contributing to such funds. Being widows and orphans also entitled you to government help because you needed that help.
Increasingly, entitlement is meaning that simply being a member of the privileged class entitles you to more privileges. After the megabanks swindled Americans into taking on mortgages they couldn’t afford, the banks leaned on the politicians to require the swindled Americans to subsidize with their taxes the bad guys who stole from them. The politicians eagerly bestowed on the bad guys the entitlement status of being too big to fail.
Granted the privileges sought by the ABT are miniscule compared to those sought by the megabanks and other megacorporations. But the mentality appears to be the same kind: We’re too big to tax.