Tuesday, October 05, 2010

EDITORIAL >>Reassessing exemptions

The state Constitution says you can’t do it. A 60-year-old statute says you can’t do it. A good case can be made that the U. S. Constitution prohibits it. Common sense and elemental fairness say no. But the Pulaski County tax assessor, Janet Troutman Ward, does it anyway. She exempts ministers from paying property taxes on their homes — that is, those who don’t want to pay the taxes.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, in a nice piece of reporting, found nine preachers who took Ward up on the exemption. They have not been paying the taxes that their neighbors have to pay to support the schools, municipal and county services, police and firemen’s pensions and improvement districts. Ward said she will exempt every preacher who asks for it as long as preaching is his or her primary job.

Now that the word is out, another thousand may claim the exemption, and the schools and municipalities will take a big hit. But maybe many clergymen will choose simply not to participate in an activity that clearly violates the law and the public good. You would expect that to be a minister’s impulse.

One minister’s home is a $600,000 estate in west Little Rock with a swimming pool and tennis courts. Anyone else in the neighborhood would owe $8,841 in taxes on such a swanky abode. The preacher, Apostle Lawrence E. Braggs, told the newspaper’s reporter that he had been paying the taxes and that “they’re killing me,” but the county’s records show that the property has not been assessed nor have taxes been paid since at least 2004. Three other homes had a market value of $340,000 or more.

The Democrat-Gazette surveyed a few other county assessors and none of them grant ministers grace from paying taxes. With good reason.

The state Constitution is clear about it. Counties were to be spared in exempting people and institutions from taxes because it would get out of hand. Taxes had to be scrupulously fair and evenhanded. The framers in 1874 allowed a church building to be exempt from property taxes, but only if the building was used solely as a church. It prohibited the legislature from granting other exemptions.

But the legislature in 1945 ignored the Con-stitution’s injunction and exempted parsonages from all but improvement-district taxes as long as a church owned the house and only the parson used it. Even then, preachers who owned their homes were not to be exempt. The First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U. S. Constitution also surely prohibit the practice of favoring people in the religious establishment with preferred tax treatment.

Ward is aware of all those laws. But she says exempting ministers is her custom. Office custom apparently supersedes constitutions and statutes. She said she did not grant the exemptions to win the political support of the big churches, a couple of which have congregations that run into the thousands. Let’s take her at her word.
Late Tuesday, Ms. Ward consulted with the county attorney, who told her she needed to put the ministers’ homes on the tax rolls as the law requires. She is going to do it. If she needs spiritual guidance, she should consult Romans 13: 1-7.