LANSING, Mich. — Robinson Memorial Church was taxed over $55,000 on a property at Perry Robinson Circle in Lansing. They were using it as a community garden and believe it should have kept its tax-exempt status.
The City of Lansing removed the tax exemption in 2020. City Assessor Sharon Frischman told FOX 47 that a side visit was made to the property. “It did not appear that the church was occupying the vacant land for any uses, therefore, it was returned to the tax roll,” Frischman stated. “This was not the only property that was returned to the tax roll. We continue to monitor and review existing exemptions. They were not singled out.”
According to Michigan law 211.7s, “houses of public worship, with the land on which they stand, the furniture therein and all rights in the pews, and any parsonage owned by a religious society of this state and occupied as a parsonage are exempt from taxation under this act.” It further states that houses of public worship include buildings or other facilities owned by a religious society and used predominantly for religious services or for teaching the religious truths and beliefs of the society.
Robinson Memorial Church Pastor Michael West said the property was used for a community garden. “Why are we being targeted? Why are you taking it from us,” said West.
The church was approved for tax exemption in 2014. The approval letter from the City Assessor’s Office said, “please keep in mind that this status will remain in effect as long as the subject property is owned and occupied by Robinson Memorial Church.”
In June of 2021, they received another letter from the city saying that the state of Michigan requires a new application process and asked them to re-apply for tax exemption. The letter states, “failure to do so will result in a loss of the exemption.”
"It is confusing because now they're saying that's because there wasn't any activity over there,” West added. "We had a community garden except for 2020 because of COVID. We didn't have it because we have an older congregation. We didn't want to endanger the people who come over to partake in the garden and we didn't want to endanger our people. So, we didn't have anything. About a year after things started to lift, we got a bill from the city.”
One of the church members is 83-year-old Ruby Hester. She was once the church secretary at Robinson Memorial Church and was looking forward to using the garden again. “I really enjoyed the garden. My husband and I were raised up in the south and we love the gardens,” Hester said.
In the same month they received a 2020 tax bill of almost $27,000 and a notice of forfeiture from the Ingham County Treasure's Office. “We're obligated to try to collect it or figure out what to do and can't change what the city has done,” said Alan Fox, the chief deputy treasurer of Ingham County. He said that they owe $55,248.58 if they were to pay by the end of this month, but that this amount increases monthly. “The property is under what's called forfeiture, which is often heard by just about everybody as foreclosure, but it's actually about a year away from foreclosure. So, there's a year to work something out. And that's something that we are eager to do with the church,” Fox said. “I understand that the church is interested in selling the property. If they do, it appears that that would produce well, more than is needed to cover the tax bill.”
The church has been trying to sell the property of a size of six acres since 2018. The property is valued at over $600,000. They would like to use the money in other ways, such as a van to pick up members for church services and to make improvements to the building.
“My goal is to have narcotics anonymous and alcoholics anonymous here," West said. "We also have teamed up with the Greater Lansing food bank. And then on the first and third Friday of the month, we feed.”
West is hoping for an explanation from Lansing Mayor Andy Schor. Lansing’s Communications Coordinator and Graphic Designer Natalie Singer told FOX 47 in a statement, “if this property isn’t being used as a church or for religious purposes under the law, then it’s taxable. If notice was sent out and payment wasn’t made, then it’s turned over to the county like every other property, and they have the option to appeal just like any other property owner.”
West said he feels the city is trying to take advantage of them. “That's not community living. That's not what we hear. As far as the messaging is concerned about the unity in Lansing, we don't see that. It's not being passed down.”
He said he contacted the City of Lansing Tax Review Board and is waiting to hear back.
Meanwhile, Frischman said the church can appeal the current year taxable status to the Michigan Tax Tribunal by May 31.
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