Church fee waiver proposal still under consideration

October 13, 2011|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD |

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — A measure to exempt churches that have tax-exempt status from paying certain county permit fees still is being considered by the Berkeley County Council, which voted 3-2 Thursday to defeat a motion opposing the proposal.

Councilmen Anthony J. “Tony” Petrucci and William L. “Bill” Stubblefield voted to amend the county’s fee-waiver policy to exclude all churches from being eligible for an exemption from paying certain county planning and engineering fees.

Council members Douglas E. Copenhaver Jr., James “Jim” Whitacre and Elaine Mauck voted against the amendment, which had been recommended by county legal counsel Norwood Bentley III to address legal concerns over the separation of church and state.

A third option suggested Thursday by Stubblefield to eliminate the county’s fee waiver policy did not make it to a vote.

Currently, the county’s fee-waiver policy does not indicate whether churches are exempt, but Bentley said last week that exempting churches from paying the fees would violate federal case law.

Federal law prohibits the government from extending financial benefit to any particular denomination or religion.

Bentley, who was absent from Thursday’s meeting, said last week that some churches might not be able to obtain or keep a tax-exempt status, and, as a result, would not receive the same benefit as others. Bentley also said that not all churches would want to obtain federal tax-exempt status, even if they could.

After Thursday’s meeting, Whitacre said he wanted to obtain clarification from the Internal Revenue Service, but agreed there may be a question of fairness if churches that do not have 501(c)3 status do not qualify for the waiver. Organizations with 501(c)3 statuse are generally considered charitable organizations in which no one receives a profit.

Copenhaver, who proposed a policy amendment that would cap the amount of a fee waiver at $250 for any qualified organization, including churches with 501(c)3 status, indicated that imposing a dollar limit may affect some organizations, such as the Youth Fair and may have to be revisited.

“If you put the cap on, then how does that affect people at the fairgrounds and the public water and sewer districts?,” Copenhaver asked.

Copenhaver said he was confident churches could obtain 501(c)3 status and did not think the policy would discriminate against churches that are not tax-exempt.

“I don’t think it is, if it’s black and white, and you got it right there,” Copenhaver said. “Is it discrimination that you’re not going to (exempt) churches that have the 501(c)3 status.”

Petrucci said the cap has merit, but said that it still could cause issues over time. Petrucci also indicated he was relying on Bentley’s legal advice pertaining to the separation of church and state issue and made the motion to exclude places of worship from being eligible.

County Administrator Deborah Hammond said the fee-waiver policy was prompted by waiver requests from organizations such as the Berkeley County Youth Fair that are under the county’s “umbrella,” but not automatically exempt from paying the permit fees.

Hammond also cited waivers for projects by the Berkeley County public water and sewer districts and the city of Martinsburg, which has had projects in the county in the past.

Bentley’s proposal to exclude churches from receiving a waiver came after a church requested a permit fee waiver for a replacement sign.

The request was not acted upon last month by the council after the permit fee was paid anonymously.

While the church’s fee waiver was a relatively small amount for the sign project, county officials last month aired concerns about setting a precedent that could lead to the loss of thousands of dollars in fees for larger projects proposed by other religious organizations.

The church had obtained 501(c)3 tax-exempt status from the IRS, and Copenhaver said last week that he felt all 501(c)3 organizations, including churches, should be treated the same.

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