Monday, December 23, 2013

Times Reports Lake County Officials to Decide when a Church is a Church

From the Northwest Indiana Times:

Midway through a hearing last week of the Porter County Property Tax Assessment Board of Appeals, member Vicki Urbanik cut to the quick.

"Are you a church?" she asked Preachit Inc. representatives. "Is Preachit a church?"

It's a key question pending before the board.

Tammy Ortman, an attorney representing the nonprofit corporation seeking a religious tax exemption on its $1.1 million property in Porter Township, responded with another question.

"How do you define a church?" she asked. "By statute, yes, it is a church. I don't know if that's within what you understand that term to mean or what I understand that term to mean. If it means does it have a steeple on the building, the answer is no."

Ortman argued Preachit meets the Internal Revenue Service definition of a church, which includes a group that holds services, administers sacraments and is led by an ordained individual.

A further distinction was made from the traditional understanding of a church when Urbanik asked whether the home is open to the public.

"Invitees, I think, would be the proper term -- and certainly the answer to that would be yes," Ortman said. "But to say we have a revolving door so that the public can come and go anytime, that answer would be no."

The Porter County assessor's office initiated the inquiry into the 36-acre site at 234 W. County Road 166 South with its 8,746-square-foot, two-story house, pond and two barns after it was discovered a religious exemption had been granted in 2009 for part of the site and no property taxes are being paid on any of it.

"I think that's probably where the train went off the tracks," Porter County Assessor Jon Snyder said during last week's hearing, referring to the 31 acres that were added to the original 3.7-acre tax exempt portion.

PTBOA President Joe Wszolek told the representatives of Preachit they are under the obligation of proving the predominant use of the property is for religious purposes if they want to retain the tax exemption.

The PTBOA hearing was continued until 1 p.m. Jan. 30 to allow time for more information to be gathered in the case.