The 21st Century Fight Over Who Sets the Terms of the Charity Property Tax Exemption
20 Pages Posted: 2 May 2016
Date Written: April 2016
Turning from the substantive issue of defining charity, this article considers the “who” question by examining the roles of the courts, legislatures, municipalities, and charities in determining exemption and payments in lieu of taxes. The three covered topics – constitutional power, statutory interpretation, and the “intermediate sanctions” of user fees and PILOTs – braid together to form the procedural framework for the financial relationship between nonprofit property owners and the taxing jurisdictions that host them. Change the parameters of one, and you change the others. Staying off the rolls or minimizing the tax bite often results from compromise – whether at the state constitutional level; in state statutes; as a matter of assessment; or through negotiation with local governmental bodies. But such an application of a multi-level framework for mischief leads to legal incoherence. The article begins with the knockdown, drag-out separation-of-powers fight that has arisen in Illinois and Pennsylvania: Which branch, the judicial or legislative, defines “charities” granted exemption by the state constitution?
Next up is the more mundane world of statutory interpretation, where even here courts second-guess the legislature. A June 2015 decision by the New Jersey tax court exemplifies what could be view as “passive-aggressive separation of powers,” when the court basically says, “Surely the legislature could not have meant this entity (or this use of property) to qualify as charity.” This latest decision not only seems to render all “sophisticated centers of medical care” in New Jersey taxable, but also is causing sleepless nights for Princeton University: The same judge is hearing a challenge to the university’s exemption brought by local taxpayers.
New Jersey’s January 2016 proposed legislation fell a pocket veto short of enactment: It would have imposed a formulary community-service fee on nonprofit hospitals. Legislative efforts are again underway. Perhaps such a third-way solution might become more common. Voluntary agreements for payments in lieu of taxes are literally all over the map, from Boston’s revamped comprehensive PILOT program to a Florida appellate court’s striking of a PILOT program as inconsistent with statutory exemption. Will the people’s branch get the last word after all?
Keywords: tax policy, nonprofit organizations, property tax, tax exemption
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