City leaders to scrutinize property tax breaks for nonprofits

Updated: Aug. 29, 2019 at 6:55 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - As large numbers of homeowners are outraged over higher property assessments, members of the New Orleans City Council plan to discuss whether some non-profits are getting too much in the way of tax breaks.

City Council President Helena Moreno says the matter is on the council’s agenda.

"Overall property exemptions will be discussed during our next meeting,” said Moreno.

Increases in property assessments can lead to higher property tax bills.

Moreno said she tried to tackle the issue of nonprofits and property taxes during her time in the Louisiana legislature.

"We worked many times when I was in the legislature to try to make some movement on this, nothing has happened, but I think that, you know, I've got some ideas on some things that may be workable for local governments, but we'd still need legislative approval,” said Moreno.

Mayor Latoya Cantrell weighed in on whether she would favor having nonprofits pay taxes on some of their properties.

"Absolutely, and we're having that looked at as well, there's a study on the way there through the Sewerage and Water Board, looking at rates along the lines of Sewerage and Water Board as well, but when we look at it we do have to go deep,” said Cantrell.

The mayor also stressed that nonprofits play an important role in the city.

“We are a nonprofit community as you know. We have several that provide services that government simply does not provide,” said Cantrell. “ It needs to be fair across-the-board and digging in, to determine what fairness really looks like is what I’m committed to, but everyone needs to pay their fair share in our city, particularly as it relates to infrastructure that we all need to live in this city.”

Councilman Jay Banks says he is all for examining property tax exemptions for nonprofit organizations.

"I'm born and raised in the Baptist Church, but I know of churches that have not only the sanctuaries but other investment properties, they've got rental properties that are tax-exempt,” Banks said during a city hall meeting this week.

Banks says the idea is not to tax actual places of worship.

"Now, I have no interest whatsoever in taxing a sanctuary, but at some point, we may need to look at what needs to be exempt,” said Banks. “If a property is exempt to carry out the mission of a church or a nonprofit or something that's helping to save the world, I'm good with that, but if they've got money-making ventures then maybe we need to look at adding more of those to the rolls.”

The New Orleans Baptist Association issued the following statement:

“The staff of the New Orleans Baptist Association, which is an association of 126 churches throughout southeastern Louisiana, including Orleans Parish, would support the conclusions of the Bureau of Governmental Research, which assert a need for increased administration and enforcement of existing exemptions rather than the removal of said exemptions. We believe, as that bureau does, that the city will be able to recover adequate resources by increasing enforcement.

To the matter of churches and religious organizations owning properties other than those used directly in performance of worship or compassion ministry, we would ask the council to be sensitive to efforts by many churches in our area to use proven Christian community development practices to provide steady resources to under-resourced communities and families while offering them the dignity of work and jobs training.

Additionally, we would argue that removing exemptions for religious nonprofits would disproportionately disadvantage under-resourced communities by forcing the closure or forfeiture of property of small, neighborhood churches which oftentimes perform a central social and religious function in said communities. These neighborhood churches are oftentimes the venue by which resource from the broader religious community are invested into said communities, and such churches are oftentimes centers of engaging the needs of their communities.

In Orleans Parish alone, the churches of our association offer weekly gatherings of our beloved people to worship God in joy and community; sliding fee-scale family and pediatric health clinics in the ninth ward; housing and recovery for women who have been trafficked into our city; recruitment and support of families taking part in foster care; support for those reentering our city from incarceration; rehabilitation, housing, and jobs training for the addicted; mental healthcare; care for our homeless; quality childcare and education; and much more. Almost all of this work is done with grassroots contributions by members of our communities. We ask that the city not add any burden to the good work done by many to address the needs of our city.”

The Archdiocese of New Orleans said it could not comment because it did not have enough information on any proposals or discussions on the matter.

The nonprofit debate aside, the city’s assessor, Erroll Williams, said he stands by the methods his office used in reassessing thousands of properties.

"If you want your assessment to be what it was 10 years ago, or 20 years ago that’s not going to happen, it’s going to be what the fair market value is estimated today,” said Williams.

And he maintains that the reassessments were done fairly.

"I do not set the tax rates, I do not mail out tax bills, I do not collect taxes. This is the function of the city of New Orleans. Anyone and everyone can criticize my office, but any changes to how properties are assessed must come from the state of Louisiana,” said Williams.

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