Some Milwaukee ministers are accusing the City of Milwaukee of illegally taxing religious institutions and then foreclosing on those that fail to pay.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson Jr. is expected to join local ministers from Pastors United, the NAACP Milwaukee branch, Milwaukee Inner city Congregations Allied for Hope, or MICAH, and Souls to the Polls during a protest Tuesday of what they are calling “Tax and Take” by the city.
The pastors include the Rev. Steven Tipton of El Bethel Church of God in Christ; the Rev. Gregory Lewis of St. Gabriel’s Church of God in Christ; and the Rev. David Stokes of Temple of Judah Church of God in Christ. All three have churches on the Northwest Side.
Tipton said he found out his church had been foreclosed after being awakened one Saturday morning by a phone call from another pastor interested in buying his church at 1501 W. Ring St.
“I wasn’t selling my church and I told him that,” said Tipton, who ministers to a congregation of about 50 members. “He told me that it was being sold by the city.”
Dumbfounded, Tipton went to City Hall.
“He was right. The city had taken my church,” he said. “During the blanket of the pandemic, they had taken it for owed taxes, and in order to get my building back, I had to pay them.”
While Tipton was able to pay off the debt, which he said was well over $10,000, to keep his church, he recognized that not all churches had the means to pay thousands of dollars to keep their buildings.
So he started an alliance with other faith leaders who had experienced the same thing. He said the group now had about 280 members.
Steve Miner, the assessment commissioner, said although churches are tax exempt, they must still meet the requirements to stay that way.
According to information provided by Miner from the Department of City Development, the city foreclosed on two churches in 2020 and both owners have their properties back. Data for 2021 was not available Monday.
‘There needs to be a better system’
Miner said the issue really comes down to a lack of communication.
“It’s helpful to have someone familiar with the statutes,” Miner said. “It’s difficult to comply with what you don’t understand.”
Every two years, churches are sent a form that needs to be completed in order to be considered tax exempt. But
Lewis and Tipton said many churches don’t receive the form or, if they do, it goes unnoticed.
“There needs to be a better system,” Lewis said. “Struggling churches don’t have secretaries, and that is why they do it.”
Lewis, the executive director of Souls to Polls, runs an adult day center for senior citizens out of his church, and Tipton operates a weekly food pantry after Sunday service.
“The church plays a huge role in our communities,” Lewis said during an earlier protest. “They act not only as a gathering space for community members but as counseling centers, food pantries and after school programs as well.”
According to Lewis, the issue is greater than filling out forms.
“The city finds any way to tax churches,” he said. “They try taxing you for the parking lot or the upper levels. It’s absurd.”
But Miner said the issue is far more complex.
“It’s unfair to have a child care center housed in a church be tax exempt but a child care center directly across the street be taxed,” he said. “It’s our job to make sure things are fair.”