By Christine Keeling
The state says a Youngstown church must pay property taxes on its Idora parcel — again.
The Ohio Department of Taxation denied a 2007 application by Mount Calvary Pentecostal Church to have its former Idora Amusement Park parcel and the 12 surrounding properties it owns on Woodford Avenue and Pearce Avenue deemed tax-exempt.
The state’s Sept. 19 final determination mimics its Dec. 8, 2010, decision, even after the church was allowed to submit more information to support its plans.
Although the finding makes $20,590 in property taxes for those parcels that the church hasn’t paid since 2006 due immediately, and could open the door for investors interested in gaining control of the 27 acres on the city’s South side, the church says “this is the time” to start phase one of its development plan.
The Idora parcel used to house an amusement park, which was established in 1899. A 1984 fire and a decline in revenue forced it to close. Mount Calvary purchased the parcel in 1985 and initially announced plans to break ground on the Idora property in 1987 for its City of God, which was to include a nursing home, shopping plaza, counseling center, retirement home and religious education and worship facilities. The church lost the parcel in a foreclosure in 1989 and re-acquired the deed in 1994.
The church is in “denial of their lack of funding,” said James London, president of the Idora Neighborhood Association. “The 27 acres is just a bunch of dirt. There was no passion or community fun after the church took control of the property.”
London said he was pleased the state saw there was no reason for the tax-exemption, because if it had been granted, he believes it would be another 27 years before the church would do anything with the property.
“I am, truly, 150 percent ecstatic” that the tax department “came back with this decision,” London said. “It’s a win for the community.”
But Mount Calvary’s Pastor C. Shawn Tyson said he’s the “new dynamic” in the equation for the Idora property’s future.
Pastor Tyson said Mount Calvary Pentecostal Church’s previous leader, Bishop Norman Wagner, had an eye on the future when he purchased the Idora parcel.
“Wagner’s vision of the City of God was beyond his lifetime,” said Pastor Tyson. “Now, he has passed the baton to me, and I am not going to let him down.”
Bishop Wagner died in January 2010, and Pastor Tyson was installed in October 2010.
Pastor Tyson said he left Indianapolis to come to Youngstown because he believed in Bishop Wagner’s dream. Pastor Tyson said he wasn’t sure what the church’s posture was in the past, but that he was committed to meeting and collaborating with community organizations in the Idora neighborhood about the parcel’s future.
He said he was “aggressively” focusing on the first phase of a four-phase project, which would “beautify” the derelict land. The plans include walking trails, athletic track, football field and tennis courts and is set to begin in spring 2012. He said he also wants the community to have access to the property.
While he wouldn’t comment on the status of the tax-exempt denial, he did say he was optimistic a resolution would be found.
Attorneys for the church were investigating options, he said.
60 DAYS FOR APPEAL
Carrie Young, attorney examiner at the Ohio Board of Tax Appeals, said the church has 60 days to appeal the tax commission’s ruling. If it does, a hearing would be set in Columbus where the church would face a three-member board. Any further appeals would go to the Ohio Supreme Court.
Several Supreme Court cases were cited to support the tax department’s decision, which came after the department received the church’s plans.
In its tax-exempt application, the church stated it planned to build a new edifice at the location and use the property for special church events, but the Ohio Department of Taxation disagreed.
“The parcels subject to this application are not used exclusively for public worship, nor are they actively being developed for public worship with a current, tangible and funded plan,” states the finding.
“Therefore, the entire subject property fails to qualify for real property tax exemption.”
In June, the church submitted preliminary drawings and a budget summary dated Dec. 19, 2003. They featured a more than 100,000-square foot worship center projected to cost $24.2 million. It touted a bookstore, banquet facility and pew seating for 3,200, although the church puts its current membership at 900.
From aerial photography, the tax department noted, “amusement park facilities were razed, leaving only the foundation and areas of heavy vegetation on the property.” It said, the land appeared vacant, other than a softball field — and no mention of fundraising for the development was on the application or the pastor’s website.
According to Ohio law, vacant land owned by a church that is used for recreational purpose is not necessary for public worship and may not be exempted from taxation.
The attorney examiner had questions about its proposed edifice.
In an Aug. 29 faxed response, the church said it may be downsizing its plans, had not established a beginning date for construction, “planned” to have various church services at the “Idora land” and had been in contact with prospective lenders but had not secured financing.
DEALING WITH DEBT
“We are presently engaged in our church debt liquidation programs,” the church wrote, before being denied.
The debt is daunting.
In two audits, in July and August, the state auditor’s office issued findings for recovery against the church for more than $96,000 in regard to monies exchanged between itself and its now-closed charter school, Legacy Academy for the Leaders and Arts.
A 2004 audit revealed more than $30,000 in findings for similar reasons.
In 2007, the church borrowed $2.5 million in loans from America’s Christian Credit Union of California against its 1812 Oak Hill Ave. address, the Idora parcel and surrounding properties it owns.
It settled a $1.5 million claim filed by Teen Missions International of Florida, for monies it loaned for the proposed City of God.
The state’s attorney general noted a $20,000 payment by the church toward its $239,566 balance. But Mount Calvary could owe an additional $16,047 in taxes, if a new lien request filed by the attorney general is deemed valid.
Possibly in another attempt to reduce debt, the church approached the city’s planning department to discuss turning over some of its other properties it owns throughout the city to the county’s land bank which is set to begin this fall. The church owns more than 80 properties, besides the Idora parcel, and as of May owed $12,000 in delinquent real estate taxes to a lien purchaser, America Tax Funding of Florida.
The city said the title work was not complete on the properties, and Pastor Tyson said the arrangement was still in the exploratory stage.
Pastor Tyson said he wasn’t aware of the church’s financial challenges before being installed but was very involved in a debt-elimination campaign. “The goal is to be debt-free in two years,” he said.
The church, Pastor Tyson said, is asking members to make a pledge, a special gift or a sacrificial giving to help raise money. Efforts to operate the ministry more efficiently are also under way.
ON WITH DEVELOPMENT
Past due taxes on the Idora property will not impede development plans, said Pastor Tyson.
Dan Yemma, Mahoning County treasurer, said the department will assess the situation and decide the best way to collect the $20,590 due in property taxes from the church. “In this economic environment, we are willing to work with people,” he said.
The church will be required to come up with some money if a delinquent payment agreement is reached, said Yemma. The longest repayment period available is five years.
Yemma said if the church fails to honor its obligation, the department would proceed to procure the property for the county land bank.
“I think we would have interested parties right away on this property,” he said. “It’s a property we don’t want to have sitting.”
The Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation is interested in creating a plan for the parcel and met with church leaders Sept. 28 to discuss the parcel’s future.
“It was the most productive and proactive conversation that’s taken place in years,” said Presley Gillespie, executive director of YNDC. “We want to do everything we can, working with the church, community and stakeholders to restore the property to productive use.”
He said construction of a community center was mentioned during the meeting, as well as, the possibility of the development of a partnership with the land bank.
Gillespie said he’s looking for creative ways to meet the goals of the community and church, but that any solid plan needs financial and human capital behind it.