Church misses tax-exemption deadline, bias county chiefs set to look the other way

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The Hawk Eye

“Harmony Bible Church missed its deadline last year to file for a tax exemption, but the Des Moines County Board of Supervisors seems ready to look the other way.

The church bought its Burlington building, the former Tom’s Market and Meats at 550 Division St., in August of 2016. It applied for a property tax exemption on Feb. 15, 2017. The deadline was Feb. 1, 2017.

Three church representatives met with the county board Tuesday to ask for “leniency” with that missed deadline — the forgiveness of about $40,000 in owed taxes.

“We got our tax bill in and our assessment in, and it was a little bit of a surprise to us,” said the church’s Elder Board chairman Russ Reed. “We know we sit as a church with some tax exemption abilities. We’re well aware we actually missed a deadline right on the front end of this. We don’t buy a lot of property, and we don’t do a lot of things in that way. We recognize we missed that.”

The amount being requested does not include the taxes the church owes for leased space in the building. The church leases part of the building to the county to house the Iowa Department of Human Services. The county pays $5,773 a month for the space, or $69,276 annually.

A Harmony Bible Church pastor who also is a lawyer, Clay Baker, gave the board an affidavit at the meeting that says the church “has used no part of the building or grounds, except areas leased to other entities as described above, for commercial purposes.

“We’re just asking for leniency, I guess I would say, because we missed it by two-ish weeks,” Baker said.

The supervisors seemed to agree that they will forgive the taxes, which include dollars currently headed toward the city of Burlington, Southeastern Community College, Burlington schools and other taxing entities. Bob Beck and Jim Cary both said they leaned toward waiving the money.

“What you guys are doing I think is probably what we need when we’re talking about expanding our jails and police force,” Beck said. “We need to look in a whole new direction about where we’re going. I’ve never gotten in trouble for saying it, but I wish our judges would hand out statements saying instead of going to jail, you have to take your family and go to Sunday school.”

Tom Broeker said he wanted some more historical information first. County staff plan to dig up similar instances of the county getting tax abatement requests in search of a precedent.

“My sympathies are with you guys, but I would like to know if we’ve faced a similar problem before and said ’too bad.” Broeker said. “I want to know if we’re violating precedent.”

County Assessor Matt Warner told The Hawk Eye on Monday there were two likely issues with the request: the missed deadline and ambiguity with Iowa code when it comes to a building in renovation being considered in-use for the tax exemption. After hearing the group detail the timeline, he said the issue was solely with the deadline.

The supervisors plan to vote on the subject at their meeting next week.”

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