Supervisors approve Agudas Achim tax abatement

BY ANNA EGELAND | JUNE 29, 2012 6:30 AM

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The Johnson County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 Thursday to approve the application for abatement of property taxes filed by the Agudas Achim Congregation.

Tom Gelman, the treasurer of the Agudas Achim Board of Trustees, said the Feb. 1 deadline made it impossible for the entity to file an exemption that would have been immediately applicable.

Under Iowa Code 427.3, the supervisors have the power to abate taxes levied against property purchased by a religious entity after the deadline for filing for property-tax exemption in the year in which the property was transferred.

Carrie Norton, a member of the Agudas Achim board, said the congregation is not seeking special treatment and requests the supervisors to grant all future requests for all religious entities.

The congregation acquired property at 401 Oakdale Blvd., the former location of Gold's Gym, on Dec. 20, 2011.

Gelman said the suggestion of resolving the issue between buyer and seller would put religious institutions at a significant disadvantage to any other buyer.

"What we're really looking for is a policy, for that policy to be thoughtfully approached," he said.

Supervisor Terrence Neuzil, who voted to approve the abatement, said there should be no taxes once a religious organization has acquired a piece of property.

"My basic philosophy is that once the organization has taken possession of the property, the property is in the religious organization's hands and shouldn't be taxed," he said.

Neuzil also said he was pleased that the Iowa Legislature made a change to allow county governments to have some flexibility in cases such as this.

Supervisor Janelle Rettig voiced her strong opposition to allowing tax abatements.

"I don't know exactly how, if we go down this path, to determine if we will ever abate taxes," she said. "What the law says is the congregation is required to pay this tax … that's why there is this deadline," she said.

Supervisor Chairman Rod Sullivan agreed with Rettig, stressing the importance of being consistent.

"In my mind, it's always resolved by the buyer and seller," he said. "I don't see this as being any different. The easy thing is to sit here and do the abatement; the harder this is to stay consistent. I feel like to ever abate taxes is inconsistent."

Several supervisors acknowledged that, had they voted a few months ago, the outcome would have been different.

Supervisor Sally Stutsman said she changed her mind and voted in favor of the tax abatement.

"This is a real switch for me," she said. "I am always very adamant about denying abatements. But I've done a lot of thinking about this; I've talked to a number of people about this, and I think there are exceptions."

Stutsman and Supervisor Pat Harney both supported their decisions by noting the separation of church and state.

"I believe in the separation of church and state, and I think that's why religious organizations are not taxed," Stutsman said.

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