Guest Commentary on Property Taxes and Churches in Anchorage

I retired from the Anchorage Fire Department (AFD) after 29 years of service and had some opportunity to be aware of some of the fire statistics and fire-loading statistics. AFD is rated by the Insurance Services Organization (ISO), which is a standards evaluating firm used by many entities nationwide. ISO ratings for fire departments are based on certain criteria including water supply, size of department/equipment/manpower/training, fire codes and enforcement and communications, along with other details. The result of their evaluation is a rating from 10 (unprotected – no fire protection) to 1 (the fire department is exceptionally competent).

AFD has achieved an astounding 2 rating. The rating interprets into the loss ratio used by many insurance companies for establishing their rates. For the most part, the ISO rating interprets fairly directly for homeowners insurance rates; businesses are usually rated individually with consideration given for their specific hazard-of-business and the local fire department capability/rating.

Having said all of that…churches are one of the highest and most problematic hazards in any city. Not necessarily for their contents – certainly a fueling facility would rate higher – but for the demands placed on the responding forces when/if they ignite. And, having said that I know that I’ve cracked the shell on a great big egg. If a city had many houses, even very large ones, and no manufacturing or large businesses there would be much lesser demand on the fire department to provide lots of water and equipment to extinguish local fires. But if you add in just one huge church you’ve created the demand for thousands of gallons more ‘fire flow’ (water resources) and lots of more equipment and manpower to respond.

Some of the most overwhelming fires I worked on during my career were in churches. They required the most resources in equipment and personnel, the most water flow and the most time to control and extinguish. The businesses, if they compared in size/fire loading, are charged for their demand-load through their taxes. The churches, and in Anchorage most of their school edifices, aren’t.

I’m not talking about crossing the church/state line and proposing taxing religion but, rather, fairly compensating the Muni for the demand being placed on the services provided by it by virtue of the size of the structures and fire load/demand. And especially for all of the ‘extras’ that are NOT directly related to the deliver of sermons. No church schools should be exempted, no church camps, no ‘church-owned’ vacant property (which could be profit-earning), no ‘extra’ church homes – a single parsonage is representative of the delivery of the message.

They are rightfully charged for water, sewer, solid waste, electricity, gas, and phone; these are all necessary services provided to operate the facilities. It is just as rightful to charge for Fire protection (they CAN burn), police protection (they ARE broken into). Fire trucks and firefighters, and police cars and police officers have to be funded by those who may need their services because they don’t appear by divine intervention upon need.

Anchorage needs to assess taxes based on the demands imposed for municipal service regardless of the nature of the services being provided by the entity – ergo, fuel tank farms pay more than concrete block plants and church schools pay just like office buildings. I would go further to say that churches, as structures, should be assessed something because they, as structures, potentially impose a significant load on services. It takes just as much or more police effort to keep traffic moving around a large church on Sunday as it does to keep traffic moving around any large business/building; it takes just as much plowing to keep the roads ready for Sunday morning services as it does for morning and evening business traffic.

It’s not fair that John Q. Citizen bears all of the costs that come with extra-large or multi-location edifices that bear none of the expense of the government infrastructure required to enable them. There should be no sacred cows that escape scrutiny.

Daniel J Tucker, AFD Battalion Chief (Ret) 1973-2002

My comment is personal and unrelated to the Anchorage Fire Department. It has not been reviewed by, nor approved by the AFD.

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Alaska Center for Public Policy

Posted on December 14, 2009, in General. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Toni Massari McPherson

    I agree that it is time to re-examine the way that church property is categorized and assessed. So many “sacred cows” were created in very different times – not questioning their existence regularly is a disservice. Dan Tucker’s perspective was both logical and eloquently expressed. I’d be very interested in hearing other perspectives on this issue.

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