Nonprofit tax in bad faith, clergy say

Religious leaders decry proposed city energy charge

`To tax us is no solution'

News conference, show of strength planned tomorrow

May 06, 2001|By Neal Thompson and John Rivera | Neal Thompson and John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's religious leaders have forged a united front in opposing the first-ever energy tax proposed for the city's nonprofit organizations, and many plan to express their outrage tomorrow at City Hall.

"We simply plan to tell the council, `If you vote in favor of this proposal, we consider it the first step toward ending your political future,'" said the Rev. Gregory B. Perkins, president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, a group of 200 predominantly black clergy.

He is organizing a 4 p.m. news conference outside City Hall. Afterward, the group plans to fill the City Council chambers to condemn the proposed 8 percent energy tax on Baltimore's nonprofit groups.

"The fact of the matter is, we feed the hungry, we clothe the naked, we try to keep people from being evicted, and we do it with a voluntary work force and on a shoestring budget. We serve the poorest of the poor," Perkins said. "To tax us is no solution for the city of Baltimore."

Mayor Martin O'Malley could not be reached to comment.

Other church leaders lined up to support the Alliance. On Friday, every United Methodist minister in the city received an e-mail from the regional office urging them to attend the news conference denouncing the tax proposal.

"We know that our clergy in Baltimore are very concerned about it. They feel that it would be debilitating to their ministries," said the Rev. Dean Snyder, communications director for the Methodists' Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference.

The proposal, which was introduced as a bill before the City Council last week, would expand the city's existing tax on energy consumption - which only affects commercial businesses - to include nonprofit organizations such as churches, schools and hospitals. It would raise a projected $4.6 million in the fiscal year that begins July 1.

The Johns Hopkins University and Johns Hopkins Health System immediately opposed the plan, which could cost them millions, as did the Maryland Association of Non-Profit Organizations. The city churches took longer to react to the plan, but by last week, they had marshaled their opposition.

At the annual convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland at the Hunt Valley Inn, delegates signed petitions opposing the tax. O'Malley was informed last week that the Standing Committee of the diocese voted to oppose it and council members will be contacted about that opposition tomorrow, said John L. Rabb, bishop suffragan.

"We're sensitive to the fact there's a revenue shortfall in the city of Baltimore," he said. "But it should have been thought out more carefully than saying, `Let's go after the nonprofits.'"

Religious leaders expressed concern that the energy tax represents the first step at what could be a chipping away of their institutions' tax-exempt status.

"I think it sets a very bad precedent," said Bishop Henry Gerard Knoche of the Delaware-Maryland Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. "I think nonprofits, particularly churches, have been exempt from taxes because we provide so many services to the city for free. ... It's breaking a long tradition in this country."

Religious leaders are also concerned that the tax will push the resources of many urban parishes to the limit, particularly in light of escalating energy costs. The pastor of Christ Lutheran Church in the Inner Harbor told Knoche the proposed tax would cost his church $10,000 a year.

"If there is one institution which has consistently remained within the city boundaries and worked unceasingly to meet spiritual and physical needs of city residents, it has been the churches, synagogues and mosques," wrote the Rev. Iris Farabee-Lewis, a Methodist minister who is president of the Central Maryland Ecumenical Council, in a letter to O'Malley late last week. "Instituting a tax on these houses of worship may discourage or even close some of those institutions or programs. If that occurs, there will be no lights left to turn out when the last person leaves."

Raymond P. Kempisty, a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore, said an energy tax could threaten the viability of some of its 54 parishes and 42 schools in the city.

Cardinal William H. Keeler, Roman Catholic archbishop of Baltimore, met with O'Malley for about an hour Friday to express his opposition to the tax. They parted without reaching an agreement.

"The mayor said he understood there are many parishes and schools within the city that would be hurt by the proposed energy tax," Kempisty said. "The cardinal says he just doesn't see eye to eye with the mayor on this issue."

Others argue that the tax would divert resources that help Baltimore residents.

"The real issue here is do you get extra revenue from those who are already doing so much in the community?" said Arthur Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, who is coordinating the Jewish community's response. "There's not a synagogue or church that's not doing something to help its congregation and others in the community. By making them pay an energy tax, you're perhaps reducing the amount of money to help those who need help."

City Council President Sheila Dixon, who supports the mayor's plan, said she has received letters and calls from some church members and leaders. But when she speaks with community groups, she said, she has heard support for making nonprofit groups pay something for the city services they use, such as police and fire protection and trash pickup.

"We should have done it years ago," she said.

She said it's not likely the council would exempt churches while taxing all other nonprofits. "It's got to be all or nothing," she said.

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