MERIDEN — Bishop Joseph J. Norfleet stood on the steps of 152 S. Colony St., a building his church owns that is currently used by another smaller Christian congregation. He held letters addressed to the church he leads from the city’s tax assessor’s office. Some of them were new tax bills.
The building, one of three in Meriden owned by the Faith Center Church of God in Christ, has newly assessed property taxes. The church, a federally registered non-profit organization, has also been assessed taxes on one of its vehicles, which happens to be a repurposed ambulance. Norfleet said the church uses it to transport members who use wheelchairs or other assistive devices.
Norfleet said it is the first time in the 33 years since he and his wife established the church that it has been subject to taxes.
“So that’s why it came as a shocker,” Norfleet said. “In 33 years, we’ve never had an issue — any issue — and we never had a problem with the city of Meriden.”
Norfleet pledged to challenge the taxes.
Another faith leader, the Rev. Dante Moss of the Apostolic Community Church on Center Street, said his church also received a new tax bill — for the rectory next to the church’s primary building.
The church had used that building as a parish office, for one-on-one conferences and to store church supplies. The rectory has been broken into on multiple occasions. During a recent burglary, copper was stolen, Moss said. So the building is used less frequently than it had been before the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile church leaders are looking for ways to repair it and bring it to full use.
Both Norfleet and Moss said things changed soon after Melinda J. Fonda was hired as Meriden’s city assessor. Her office revised the schedule for when quadrennial reports must be filed, both pastors said. Fonda’s office sought more details regarding the properties, including the items owned by the churches and further financial details, including asking whether the churches had any rent-paying tenants.
“She wanted statements on things like, ‘who are you renting your property to?’ We’re not renting to anyone. We don’t do that. We’re a church,” Norfleet said.
Norfleet said the first form he returned was filled with numerous responses he marked as “N/A” — “not applicable.”
“Initially I thought we were being targeted by the city because they felt like we weren’t being cooperative,” Norfleet said.
But he said, the church, as a federally registered nonprofit, is not required to provide all of that information to the city.
Neither Fonda, nor City Manager Timothy Coon, responded to requests for comment related to this story.
A Record-Journal reporter on Thursday requested an explanation from city officials outlining their rationale for removing the tax exempt status of the church properties. That inquiry went unanswered and was instead referred to city attorneys as a public records request made under the state Freedom of Information Act.
That same day, a reporter visited the city assessor’s office requesting to speak with Fonda. A staff member told the reporter Fonda was not available to speak and instead suggested the Record-Journal submit a public records request, which the newspaper has done.
Both Norfleet and Moss described being rebuffed in their efforts to discuss the assessments with Fonda.
Norfleet said it came to a head after he requested to meet with Fonda following a notification the church received about the citywide property revaluations.
Norfleet described Fonda as confrontational. When he asked questions, she answered defensively.
The interactions were different from church leaders’ interactions with other employees in the assessor’s office, he said. Norfleet described those exchanges as cordial and professional.Vulnerable time
Moss described the current climate between city finance officials and nonprofit organizations and religious groups, amid the backdrop of a global pandemic, as “the perfect storm.”
City officials “are looking to increase the Grand List,” Moss said, referring to the list of all taxable property in a city or town. “So they’re going after nonprofits to increase the Grand List. In increasing the Grand List, you’ve got to find money somewhere. So you’re hitting churches and nonprofits that serve poor people.”
Moss’ church serves a population that is largely low income. The church’s income is mostly derived through contributions from members.
“That’s money from the pockets of people,” Moss said of where the tax dollars would come from.
On top of that, churches like Moss’ have seen significant declines in their membership and financial contributions as a result of the shutdown of in-person gatherings and services during the early months of the pandemic. Efforts to bring members back and to welcome new members are ongoing.
Moss said the impact on churches was significant.
“A lot of my friends lost their parishes,” he said. What resources churches had were used on expenses, like utilities.
So city tax officials caught religious groups at a particularly vulnerable time coming out of the pandemic.
Moss said the fact churches had to shut down was used against them. ‘Very confident’
Previously, officials had chalked up the local dispute on tax exemptions to a lack of clarity from state officials around the rules for applying those exemptions.
It appears one rule — regarding temporary housing provided by nonprofit groups — has been clarified by the Connecticut Supreme Court. The court’s ruling last year in Rainbow Housing Corporation v. Town of Cromwell, stipulated that temporary housing does not need a specific duration to be tax exempt.
That decision established the definition of temporary housing to mean “impermanent” and “transitory,” without the need to specify a duration.
Faith leaders’ fight against their newly levied taxes comes on the heels of other non-profit leaders’ challenges to their recent tax assessments.
The Meriden-New Britain-Berlin YMCA filed suit in Superior Court on June 24, stating the city had improperly levied property taxes on more than a dozen properties owned by the agency.
YMCA Director John Benigni said the matter is in the hands of the agency’s attorney.
“We’re very confident that our properties will not be taxable,” Benigni said.
Other legal battles are ongoing, including challenges waged by MidState Arc Inc. and Easterseals. One lawsuit, filed by Women & Families Center, was resolved in late 2021, with the city promising to refund the center for property taxes paid on its WYSH House, which provides temporary housing for homeless youth.
So far neither Apostolic Community or Faith Center has filed a court challenge to the city’s tax determinations. The churches’ leaders left that as a possible step.
Moss said part of his job as a minister is helping members of his church overcome obstacles.
“You’re taking the money from people who are not rich,” he said as if addressing city officials directly. “... And you come in and take money that you doesn’t deserve...We’re a 501c3… I’ve given you all of my documents and you still want to tax us as if we’re trying to get one over on the system. It doesn’t make sense to me.
“It doesn’t add up,” Moss said.
Reporter Michael Gagne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.