Richmond County tax assessors scrutinize tax-exempt property uses

Owners of tax-exempt properties might have to justify those exemptions this year, according to the Richmond County Board of Tax Assessors.

The board has begun to take a close look at property tax exemptions to determine whether owners are using properties in ways that qualify, Chief Appraiser Alveno Ross said.

Ross said the examination of tax-exempt properties is the final piece of a “full digest review” undertaken by his office to ensure that all properties are accounted for, properly categorized and assessed.

Ross said the intent is to review every parcel that doesn’t produce any property tax. That’s more than 2,600 parcels and more than $2 billion in total assessed property values, he said.

Board of Assessors member Bryan Simkins said the panel is working on a plan that might include asking property owners to reapply for their exemptions.

“It is going to be across the board,” Simkins said. “We are going to ask them to reassess what they have and tell us how they operate and why they should be tax exempt.”

A large number of those affected – almost 1,100 parcels valued at more than $828 million – belong to churches, other religious organizations and other nonprofit groups.

Ross said many of the exemptions have been on the books for years without any examination of how the property is used, which is a primary factor in determining whether a property should be exempt.

“When the laws were written in 1933 they didn’t really envision all the things churches do today,” Ross said.

For example, if a church owns rental property or a restaurant that produces income, that property might no longer qualify for a tax exemption. Nonprofits, or so-called 501(c)(3) organizations, that own income-producing property could be affected as well, Ross said.

Having a federal 501(c)(3) designation normally exempts such groups from income tax.

“But that doesn’t necessarily qualify you to be exempt from property tax,” he said.

Tim Mirshak, an attorney and board member for Villa Marie Apartments, which has ties to the Catholic Diocese of Savannah, said he feels confident the property will maintain its exempt status whatever the test.

“We are akin to properties operated by Augusta Housing Authority, but with a different sponsor,” said Mirshak, who explained that Villa Marie’s mission was to provide quality low-income housing. The apartments are owned by Caritas Corp., an independent, nonprofit organization that does not share revenue or debt with the diocese, Mirshak said.

Any change in the property tax status could harm the charitable mission, he said.

“If we had a substantial tax bill it would materially impact our ability to provide the quality of low-income housing we provide right now,” Mirshak said.

Board of Assessors attorney Jim Plunkett said board members are evaluating the best way to proceed. He expects there will be controversy, especially if a church is in danger of losing an exemption.

The board already re-examines such properties when they are brought to its attention. Recently it revoked tax exemptions on four parcels owned by Hale Street Baptist Church. The board determined that the church had moved and the exemptions no longer applied, according to minutes from its May 14 meeting.

Of the thousands of exempt parcels, however, Plunkett expects the majority will retain the designation.

“I think at the end of the day there will be a very small percentage that is improperly categorized,” he said.

Whatever the process, the goal is to be uniform and fair, Simkins said.

“We are not picking on anybody, but it is a matter of getting everyone on an equal plane,” he said.

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