It’s not just about the schools: Selectmen also ask churches to step up their donations

Above: The Southborough Fire Department responding to a gas leak at Pilgrim Church in 2009

As you’ve probably heard, Southborough selectmen have been making a push lately to convince tax-exempt nonprofits in town like St. Mark’s and Fay School to increase the amount of their voluntary payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) contributions. Selectman John Rooney said this week that the effort is not limited to just the educational institutions. Later this month he intends to ask Southborough’s churches to increase their PILOT contributions, as well.

Southborough is home to seven religious institutions, and as nonprofits, none of them pay taxes on the property they own. Only one of the institutions, the L’Abri Fellowship, makes a PILOT contribution. They donate $500 annually.

Rooney said in a presentation to the Board of Selectmen on Tuesday that the religious institutions consume town services like fire and police, just like St. Mark’s, Fay School, and the other educational institutions do.

“It has nothing to do with faith issues,” Rooney said. “It has to do with fairness.”

Although he doesn’t expect the response to be “favorable,” Rooney said he will ask each of the religious institutions to contribute a “nominal, good faith donation” of $10K annually.

In his presentation on Tuesday, Rooney detailed how much each religious institution consumes in town services and how much revenue the town loses each year on property they own. In addition to police and fire services, the town also provides free snow plowing to many of the churches in town.

According to Rooney’s calculations, the total annual tax exemption for St. Matthew’s and St. Anne’s is $69K combined. For Pilgrim Church it is $38K, for St. Mark’s Church $55K, and for First Community $14K. The annual tax exemption for the Chinese Gospel Church and L’Abri Fellowship is estimated at $63K each.

The total tax exemption for all of the religious institutions is just over $300K annually.

After the meeting, Selectman Bill Boland point out that some of the religious institutions are increasing their holdings in town. He said St. Anne’s Church has purchased two residential properties on Walker Street in the past few years.

No word from any of the churches on their plans for PILOT contributions.

If you’d like to see Rooney’s tax exemption calculations for yourself, they’re in his presentation here. It’s a large file (2.7MB) so download may take a bit.

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mike e
11 years ago

while i agree the churches should contribute to the town, i don’t think they should be looked at in the same light as the private schools. churches give back to town residents by creating a spiritual community around religion which makes southborough a better place to live. in my opinion churches have more of an impact on everyday residents than the private schools…

Marjorie Coldwell
11 years ago

…as a member of Pilgrim Church for 42 years and as Church Historian I have to comment.
Does Mr. Rooney have any idea about how much the churches in Southborough are struggling with funding? There are deficit budgets along with fixed expenditures, rising utility costs, and mortgage payments that have to be met.
The economic crunch has had a profound negative effect on church donations.
Unlike the private schools, most of the churches do not have that amount of money to pay to PILOT.
We don’t have endowments.
We just hope to be able to pay our bills when they come in.
We hope our 200 year old meeting house does not need major repairs.
Pilgrim Church houses the Southborough Food Pantry at no cost to them. The members of all the churches in town contribute food and work faithfully on that to help the more than 57 families in our community who need that help.
The churches house the Scout Troops of Southborough at no cost to them.
How many other unseen contributions are made to the Town of Southborough by its houses of worship? Ask any of the members of the churches,

Neighbour
11 years ago

Why ask? Just enforce parking rules around St.Mathews for example. Easy $50K in year.

southsider
11 years ago

Now he wants to tax churches! Let’s get a bit more realistic. How rich do you think these institutions all are? Most barely get by. And in my mind, the more property they own, the better. Otherwise some developer would simply put up a few more 4 bedroom colonials to be filled with kids we apparently can’t afford to educate.

And, btw, if we plow some church lots, we should plow them all.

dean dairy
11 years ago

Reminds me of this scene from “The Exocist.” No, not that scene.

“Faddah, can you help an old altar boy?”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ca0pz9UCBtU#t=11s

dean dairy
11 years ago

Woops, Exorcist.

Al Hamilton
11 years ago

If institutions want to claim to be part of the community then they have to share burdens.

Yes, churches sponsor socially good activities like the Scouts and Food pantries. The reality is that the real work of these important programs is done by the residents of Southborough not the institutions. I was an Assistant Scoutmaster for years at a church that I did not attend. The institution provided space which was important but the real work was done by a dedicated group of adults, most of who were not members of that church.

When there is a fire these institutions expect the fire dept to respond. If there is a snow storm they expect the roads in front to be plowed. If they offer housing to their priest/rabbi/minister/imam and that person has children they expect them to attend our schools.

djd66
11 years ago

All Mr. Rooney is saying is that they (everyone) should contribute to the cost of running this town – plain and simple! Churches have to pay for mortgages, utilities, repairs + maintenance,… why should they not have to pay for to costs associated with running the town?

I have a not for profit institution that my wife and I run every day. We specialize in bringing up our 2 children. We have all kinds of expenses in this instituion we can not afford – the biggest one is the “college education fund”. We have a building in town that houses this institution. Can I get an exemption for my property taxes?

Living the dream
11 years ago

Of note is that St. Anne’s has purchased several homes behind it to make parking lots. Although this hasn’t happened yet and out property values will certainly decrease, the revenue the town gets from the taxes on that property has decreased. In addition, we plow their lot (WHY????) which will in the end mean more time and money spent on that property for tax payers who may not attend that church or even be Catholic. There has to be somebody who attends church there that will donate their time to their church and plow the lot and take the burden off the tax payers. It would be very nice if we could limit the number of properties St. Mark’s, Fay and the churches could buy or make it so that they have to pay the taxes of any new acquired purchases. We have lost an awful lot of revenue to these non-profits and the burden is being placed on us not them. They need to step up.

mike
11 years ago

If Pilgrim Church and St Annes still followed true Biblical principles their congragants would be tithing minimum of 10% before takes. I see the cars parked in the parking lots and if these churches taught about tithes and love offerings (over and above the tithe) there would be no problem with the Church budgets. The widows might came from her needs and not her wealth! And, I agree, and I am a Christian, these Churches should have their tax exempt priviledges taken away as they do often step over political lines. Mr. Rooney is correct they should contribute their fair share to the tax base in my opinioin.

Kelly Roney
11 years ago
Reply to  mike

I’d be very leery of debating whose religious practices are righteous in decisions how to tax (or not) religious institutions. That’s a perfect way to provoke collisions of absolute belief in a way that can’t be resolved.

In a larger context, our founders tried to put this debate out of the sphere of government with the First Amendment, and the result is that we try to treat all religious institutions the same – as well as extending similar privileges to secular non-profits so as not to establish a legal preference for religion over the absense of religion.

One of the criteria the law applies to defining a qualifying non-profit is non-participation in politics. I have not seen any of Southborough’s religious institutions participate in politics. I’d be interested to hear substantiation of the charge that they do.

Frank Crowell
11 years ago

I wonder if any Southborough property owners/tax payers go church in town?

Mr. Rooney’s quest to get more PILOT money out of educational non profits is commendable. Going after churches in town is a different story.

Al Hamilton
11 years ago
Reply to  Frank Crowell

Frank:

Why are they different?

Frank Crowell
11 years ago
Reply to  Al Hamilton

Al,

My thinking is that most of the people who attend the churches in Southborough are people who live in town and are already paying property taxes. Far different from out of town students (most) using our services in town who pay no taxes.

Maybe I am wrong on both assumptions.

Kelly Roney
11 years ago

You think Chevy Chase and Goldie Hawn might be up for a sequel to “Foul Play”? (The villains comprise the Tax-the-Churches League.)

By the way, what’s the eighth religious institution? I only see seven here and in John Rooney’s PowerPoint.

John Rooney
11 years ago

I agree that religious institutions are different than private educational institutions and should be treated as such. Churches are not built for purposes of gain; they are built for the benefit of the public. Churches provide intangible but invaluable benefits to society through their religious activities. Churches cultivate public spiritedness. They induce citizens to benevolence, charity, generosity, active sympathy for those in trouble or distress; without such acts and dispositions, a truly civil society could not endure. Churches inculcate public morality and teach obedience and obligation, and respect for the person and property of another.

A balance is sought between the continued viability of the tax exemption and the fact that churches derive great benefits from their tax exempt status. As an initial matter, they are exempt from both federal income tax and federal unemployment tax. They qualify to receive tax-deductible contributions for income, estate, and gift tax purposes. They are exempted from state and local taxes. Churches may issue tax-exempt bonds to finance some of their activities, enjoy preferred postal rates, and qualify to provide tax-deferred retirement plans for their employees. The many benefits these religious entities receive from their tax-exempt status have enabled them to become extremely wealthy.

Although somewhat dated, an article in the Boston Globe indicated that “[n]ationally, the Catholic Church takes in $8.2 billion a year in donations at the parish level . . . plac[ing] the church ahead of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, Pepsi bottling, John Hancock Financial Services, General Mills, Kellogg, America Online, Union Carbide, Campbell’s Soup, and Quaker Oats [in terms of revenues.]”

Ms. Coldwell, I hear you and I agree with what you say about the Pilgrim Church. In addition to the services you have mentioned, the generosity of Jon Wortmann, whom I know and very much respect, is perhaps unparalleled in town. Yet it was only fair once the decision was made to reach out to religious organizations, all religious organizations be included.

Admittedly, you cannot quantify the “amount” of religious and spiritual contributions afforded the town by its places of worship. We can, however, objectively quantify at $304,000 the town’s annual services to the religious institutions.

Jim G
11 years ago
Reply to  John Rooney

Mr. Rooney,

Are you saying that these institutions consume $304,000 worth of services or that if taxed, their property would be assessed for that amount?

Part Timer
11 years ago

Why can’t we go after the MWRA? They must be the largest land owner of them all. Do they pay taxes?

Kelly Roney
11 years ago
Reply to  Part Timer

As a state authority, the MWRA is immune from local taxation.

Town Parishoner
11 years ago

Southborough has now sunk so low to ask for churches to contribute more money to the town? I can only speak on behalf of St. Matthew’s, and Father Flynn- but this is horrible. Fr. Flynn’s contribution to the community and his parish go above and beyond most clergy I have ever seen. All churches are struggling, and asking to put contributions to the town- where the money goes anywhere, takes away from valuable resources to the parishoners of the Church- who are mostly middle to lower class (counseling, funeral services, conferences for parishoners, etc). And, Mr. Rooney- stop going after the Catholic Church- all churches must publish annual budgets, that money goes to supporting retired priests, numerous Catholic charities, as well as upkeep of churches. Shame on you.

DLD
11 years ago

I agree. You’re not really taxing the churches, because the churches are not wealthy in their own right. Their income is what the parishioners put in their pledge envelopes and place in the collection plate each week. This proposal just amounts to a back-door tax on the church-going public. This money will end up coming out of the same pockets that all tax-increases and revenue-generating schemes eventually do – yours, mine and ours.

Al Hamilton
11 years ago
Reply to  DLD

So, let me ask the following questions:

1. If a church in town catches fire do you expect the fire department to come?

2. If there is a break in do you expect the police to respond?

3. If a resident living in the parsonage has a child requiring special ed do you expect the town to provide it?

If the answer is yes, how can you justify not paying your fair share for these services? The way, for better and worse, that we apportion the fair shares is based on the value of your property.

I work in a mill building and there are 2 congregations that rent space in the building. The interesting thing is that because these congregations rent commercial space they pay the an implied property tax that is part of their rent. These congregations appear to minister to congregations of far lesser means than the typical Southborough resident but they pay their fair share.

Jerry C
11 years ago

The churches do not have the money to pay this, and it’s just going to be a tax on the local members. Please stop this effort.

mike
11 years ago

Actually Jerry C and DLD, The traditional main line churches, who were once very conservative and Christian (born again believers in Jesus Christ as savior), are actually quite wealthy with their bank accounts and endowments (I worked for a church in Hudson that had a $2M bank account they lived off of. Their people did not tithe at all). These main line traditional churches (methodists, anglican, congregational, some catholic and many more) have become very liberal over the years and use their tax exempt status to perpetuate left of center policies from the “comrporate” level. For instatnce, the congregational church in the center of town actually does pay taxes, but it pays taxes back to their “corporate” headquarters in the form of a per member $ figure per year. So in the same instance if there are 200 members the church here in Southboro, the Southboro church sends say $5.50 per person back to the “headquarters”. That money is then used often times for numerous purposes including political purposes (and the term political does not have to mean to elect someone). They and the preachers in their pulpits are allowed by law to use 5% of their time and preaching for political purposes believe it or not (in the case of Focus on the Family liberal folks hate that). Whether on the left or right is not the point here for me. The point is they sit on valuable real estate, use town services, and do not contribute the same services they once did in the community. The productioin of “christian charity” and the reult of “tithes”, that the traditional main line churches once did, is now done by more conservative, bible believing churches in the poorer sections of America. And, the poorer, more conservativce, “strip mall” churches are providing those services now as I mentioned. So, I say tax them all. There really isnt much to tax on the conservative churches. Their/our money all goes to missions, outreach, support for the community and if there is enough left over they pay their Pastor. And typically they do not have paid secrateries, hyouth workers, and staff.

Deb Moore
11 years ago
Reply to  mike

re: “There really isn’t much to tax on the conservative churches. Their/our money all goes…”

…but this discussion is about property taxes, so it matters not whether the organization’s money goes to causes, good or bad, or how much money comes in by whatever manner. The taxes in question are based on the value of property held.

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