Most Appeals Denied

Taxes.

According to Benjamin Franklin, it’s one of the certainties in this world.

Citing the responsibility to see that the proper subjects of taxes are taxed, the Warren County Assessment Board of Appeals asked the Warren County Commissioners early last year if it had the authority to review every tax-exempt entity in the county.

The commissioners said yes and the board members – Chairman Bernard J. Hessley, Joe Whipp, and Doug Wilson – got to work.

“The assessment board considered a wealth of material,” Hessley said on Thursday. “We put all of (the tax-exempt entities) on notice that we were going to reexamine their tax-exempt status.”

“Every single piece of information was looked at and digested,” Warren County Chief Assessor Karen Beardsley said. “I think that’s a testament to how well the board did their job.”

The organizations deserved a serious effort.

“They needed to take their time,” Beardsley said of the board. “These entities benefit the community.”

“To the extent that these organizations are enjoying their tax-exempt status they are increasing the burden on everyone else,” Hessley said. “It became an issue of fairness.”

The lion’s share of tax-exempt entities is made up of churches. “All the churches – every church was notified,” he said. “They had to give us justification.”

“Places of regularly stated religious worship” are among the places that may be declared tax-exempt, according to the Pennsylvania Constitution.

Cemeteries, hospitals and nursing homes are also on the list. They may be tax-exempt, but, according to recent decisions by the state Supreme Court, they are not automatically exempt.

“It’s not like we reinvented the wheel,” Hessley said. “Hospitals, YMCAs, nursing homes, have been through the legal mill. There are court cases on them.”

“Over a period of time, the laws have changed, and it affects whether or not an organization is entitled to a charitable exemption,” Hessley said.

“The Supreme Court set forth what was required to meet the Hospitalization Utilization Project (HUP) test,” he said.

There are five components of the HUP test: advance a charitable purpose; donate or render gratuitously a substantial portion of its services; benefit a substantial and indefinite class of persons who are legitimate subjects of charity; relieve the government of some of its burden; and operate entirely free from private profit motive. To be declared tax-exempt, an organization must meet all five.

The Pennsylvania legislature passed the Institutions of Purely Public Charity Act to help clarify the HUP test and the board members took into account those similar, but more detailed, requirements.

Failing to meet any of the requirements disqualifies an entity.

If one property qualifies, others owned by the same organization may not, and are taxable.

In the end, the appeals board came up with a short list of organizations that didn’t make the cut.

Each of them was invited to present more information.

After the hearings, the appeals board took another look at each entity. Only one was put back on the tax-exempt list. Others were ruled partially exempt and the rest owe taxes on all of their properties.

“(We) made our decisions based on the information presented to us,” Hessley said. “Some of these are going to be unpopular.”

Representatives of some of the organizations are looking into appealing.

But that avenue for relief is a costly one.

Warren County Commissioner Chairman Stephen Vanco said he would like to hear alternative proposals.

“I’d like to see some of these taken care of with PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes), rather than going through all the different challenges,” he said. “That would be an option that I would be open to.”

Whether they are tax-exempt or not, “these agencies get services from local government,” Vanco said.

“The effect of this is, everybody’s got to pay their fair share,” Hessley said.