As the county seat, Ellsworth is a center for services, heath care, goods of all kinds, support programs, worship, dining and entertainment. Being a transportation crossroads is part of the draw.
Well represented in the mix are nonprofit agencies and organizations benevolent, charitable or both. As a result, citizens have opportunities for socialization and support previously unavailable or difficult to access. That’s the good news.
The flip side is that the nonprofits often come at a cost — the loss of property tax revenue as land and buildings are removed from the tax rolls. The tax burden of these formerly taxed properties is shifted to the residents of Ellsworth. While nonprofit organizations add value, many of them do not share in the expenses that attend community life: roads be plowed and maintained, fire trucks to respond to emergencies, and police providing aid and protection. These services have costs, which the majority of nonprofits do not support with tax payments or payments in lieu of taxes.
But that’s OK when the nonprofit gives back to the community. Recreation for children and seniors, comfort for the grieving, intervention for those who cannot cope — these are valuable contributions. How arid and unlovely life would be if dollars and cents were the sole measure of worth. And yet, dollars and cents matter. (In “It’s a Wonderful Life,” George Bailey reacts when his angel, Clarence, says they don’t use money in Heaven. “Well, it comes in real handy down here, bud.”
Last week, City Assessor Larry Gardner challenged the assertion that a radio tower and buildings used by the Light of Life Ministries should be exempt from property taxes. He acknowledged the religious organization qualifies for federal tax exemption, but questioned whether a radio tower’s function is benevolent and charitable. The Board of Appeals overruled Gardner and waived the city’s attempt at collecting approximately $750 annually in property tax.
We will let the lawyers parse the intent of the laws and rules written around “benevolent and charitable purposes” and not wade into the interpretations of what constitutes religious activity. But this very minor skirmish should remind of the shift of responsibility that occurs whenever an organization is spared property taxes. It also should remind us that the Ellsworth taxpayer has a friend in Larry Gardner, who fought the good fight on their behalf.
Ellsworth, as well as other communities that are home to nonprofit organizations, face ever increasing tax burdens, aging population bases and mounting demands for services. You needn’t be an economist to recognize that a collision of demands lies ahead.