Thursday, January 15, 2009

Big Brother and Non-Profits

I almost weighed in on this issue last year, when facts came to light that Athens-Clarke County officials were suing Nuci's Space, the musician's resource center and non-profit group dedicated to suicide awareness and prevention. After a local judge ruled against the county's draconian tactics to collect taxes from the non-profit, most assumed that was the end of it.

Not so, according to the county attorney's latest filing.

Athens-Clarke officials are testing a recently passed law that exempts commercial enterprises such as thrift stores run by nonprofits from property taxes.

Nuçi's Space - a mental health resource center and rehearsal space for musicians founded by Phillips' family after he killed himself in 1996 - applied for a property tax exemption under the new law in 2007, but county tax assessors denied it.

The nonprofit appealed to a county board of property owners and won. Assessors appealed that decision to Clarke County Superior Court, and Judge Lawton Stephens ruled last month in favor of the Nuçi Phillips Memorial Foundation.

County lawyers contend that, because the foundation sells alcohol at concerts and rents out Nuçi's Space for private parties, it's not exempt from property taxes. They notified the foundation Friday that they would take the case to the next level, the state Court of Appeals.

Outstanding. While local taxpayers will be fleeced thousands of more dollars as the county pursues its vendetta against Nuci's Space, whatever taxes that could have been collected will be offset by the cost of this useless litigation.

Former state Rep. Jane Kidd, D-Athens, said she thought this issue was cleared up in 2006, when voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment exempting nonprofits from local property taxes even if they operate like a business.

The Internal Revenue Service grants groups nonprofit status and should decide who must pay taxes and who doesn't, not local governments, said Kidd, who guided the law through the legislature three years ago.

"Every nonprofit has to raise money the best way it can," she said. "There's nothing in the law that says you have to raise it (a certain) way or you're not exempt."

County Attorney Bill Berryman, though, said Nuçi's Space owes taxes on its land and building, valued at $380,000, because beer sales and private parties are not related to its mission of providing health care and counseling for mental illness to cash-strapped musicians.

So "county attorney" Bill Berryman decides how non-profit organizations should write their mission, conduct their business, and raise their monies?

The fact of the matter is that if Nuci's were located in some decrepit, crime-ridden area of town where property values are worthless, the county attorney's office would not be pursuing the matter (blood, stone, etc). But here's the real rub, and why we'll go to war against non-profits if need be in order to exact every last tax dollar.

If a nonprofit bought a valuable downtown hotel, for example, and took it off the tax rolls, the county would hundreds of thousands of dollars of revenue each year, according to Berryman. [He] pointed out that Clarke is a small county where about two-fifths of land is owned by government, churches or other nonprofits and not taxable.
Were Berryman and the Assessor's office really concerned about "collecting monies" owed the county, perhaps they should have gone to war against the Navy School/MCG deal a few years ago. The Navy School, federal property, is one of the largest tracks of land off the digest in the county. Now that it will revert to the Medical College of Georgia in 2010, this land will never generate a single tax dollar for the community.

Meanwhile, Nuci's Space generates an unbelievable amount of good will and service to the community.

This type of nanny, Big Brother nonsense is exactly why citizens mistrust and resent government. The idea that some government bureaucrats feel they can dictate what a non-profit organization can and can't do is astonishingly arrogant (and perhaps actionable itself, which will then further tie the county up in needless litigation and expenses).

In these tough economic times, "well done," ACC government.

No comments: