ELLSWORTH — The city’s Board of Appeals voted unanimously Monday to grant tax-exempt status for a radio tower, steel building and equipment on Beechland Road owned by Light of Life Ministries Inc.
The organization operates Worship Radio Network, a Christian radio station that broadcasts out of offices in Augusta.
Light of Life Ministries is a nonprofit exempt from federal and state taxes. But property taxes are different. In most cases, nonprofits must apply to local assessors for property tax abatement even if they aren’t required to pay federal and state taxes. Assessors then decide whether they believe the organization should be tax-exempt based on whether they believe the property is being used for “benevolent and charitable purposes.”
On Monday, City Assessor Larry Gardner argued that Light of Life Ministries should not be exempt from property taxes on the $41,400 tower.
“I’m actually very appreciative of it being here,” Gardner told board members on Monday. He had suggested the group apply for a business equipment tax exemption instead.
But an exemption as a benevolent and charitable nonprofit? Gardner is not convinced.
“They’re providing worship music on the radio, but I don’t consider that being benevolent and charitable,” said Gardner in an interview after the meeting.
Gardner argued that property tax exemptions should be granted to organizations providing services the city would otherwise have to provide.
The city would not be allowed to provide such a service, pointed out Chairman Jeffrey Toothaker, under laws governing the separation of church and state.
But attorney Stephen Hayes, representing the nonprofit, pushed back.
“If that were the test, there are very few charitable organizations that would survive the test,” Hayes said. “Governments in and of themselves are seldom charitable or benevolent.”
The tower is one of over a dozen towers around the state owned by the organization, which broadcasts at a frequency of 91.7 FM in the Ellsworth area. In all other locations, including in unorganized territory managed by the state, the organization has been granted exemption from property taxes, Hayes said.
“We were challenged by some of these communities,” Ray Bouchard, CEO of the nonprofit, wrote in an email to the city in 2017. “However, in the final analyses all except you agreed that our equipment including towers do qualify under the code and are tax-exempt.”
Gardner pointed to two pieces of evidence to make his case. The first was a bulletin from Maine Revenue Services, updated in 2017, which reads that “religious purposes are not to be equated with benevolent and charitable purposes.”
The second, a memo from the Maine assistant attorney general in 1989, dealt with a radio tower owned by a church in Bangor. In that memo, Assistant Attorney General Diane E. Doyen wrote that the tower was not exempt under state property tax law.
But Hayes countered that charitable purposes include religious purposes, pointing to case law from 1867, part of which Toothaker read aloud.
“A charity is a gift to be applied consistently with existing laws for the benefit of an indefinite number of persons either by bringing their minds and hearts under the influence of education or religion,” Toothaker read, “by relieving their bodies from disease, suffering or constraint.”
Responding to the memo from the assistant attorney general, Hayes said that the memo dealt with a different part of the tax code and “basically parsed the idea that a tower can’t be a church, which we’re not suggesting that it is.”
Gardner conceded that the definition of charity applied in this case, but argued that the 2017 bulletin from Maine Revenue Services was still relevant.
“Religious purposes are not to be equated with benevolent and charitable purposes,” he repeated.
Gardner again pointed out that the organization could apply for the business equipment tax exemption. Hayes said they did not want to do so “as a matter of principle.”
“To go down that path,” said Hayes, “frankly requires us to acknowledge first off that it’s taxable.”
After about an hour of testimony, board members voted unanimously to grant the exemption, which amounts to around $750 each year.
Board member Stephen Salsbury made a motion that the organization met all the criteria of a charitable and benevolent organization.
“I want to go further,” said Toothaker, adding that the use of the tower meets all the criteria of a charitable use.
“Early on in our country’s history churches were exempt, and then we got technical,” Toothaker said. “But religion as an establishment is entitled to the tax exemption as long as they’re not profitable.
“They’re clearly not profitable.”