[Diocese of Fond du Lac] Following five years of dispute, the Episcopal Diocese of Fond du Lac [centered in Appleton, Wisconsin] and the Village of Hobart have settled a matter of the assessment of taxes on the cemetery at Church of the Holy Apostles, Oneida. After assessment in 2007, the church paid the taxes because State statute requires payment of taxes before allowing a legal challenge of the assessment. The diocese pursued both informal and formal avenues to remove the assessment on a property exempt from taxation, ending with filing legal action in Brown County Circuit Court. Pursuant to the settlement, the claim was dismissed, with prejudice, after the village agreed the cemetery property is exempt. The village refunded all taxes paid.
The Rt. Rev. Russell Jacobus, Bishop and President of the Diocesan Trustees, said assessment on this property by Hobart previously occurred in both 1950 and 1983. Both times Hobart removed the assessment after being contacted by the diocese who explained its exempt use.
“It’s hard to understand why this time was different. The assessor and village board refused to accept our claim of exemption so we had to hire a lawyer and file a lawsuit.” Jacobus said. “Only after the expense of time, talent and treasure did the village settle. This could have been a simple matter, easily resolved, but for some reason they didn’t want to see what was clear — you can’t tax cemeteries.”
Matthew Payne, Lay Canon for Administration, said the 27 acres in question, located between the church and the original 1820’s cemetery, were purchased in 1908 from an Oneida family. It was a perfect fit to make the property contiguous with the original 7 acre cemetery and allow for expansion of burials. Those buried there, including a veteran of the American Revolution, are principally Oneida so the cemetery has a cultural significance to the Oneida Nation.
“I know the assessor was trying to do his job. I know the village was attempting to serve its constituents,” Payne said. “But there was misinterpretation of the law, with no attention to legal precedents and the property’s history. The lack of reasoning was not sustainable to the diocesan Trustees, who hold title to the property, as well as most everyone else who was presented with the information.”
While this matter has been resolved, Payne believes the state law regulating challenges about exemption needs to change. He plans to contact a local legislator. “If you’re pulled over for speeding, you don’t have to pay the ticket before you challenge it, do you?” Payne said. “If your assessment on your home or business increases, you have an opportunity to challenge it prior to paying the taxes, don’t you? But if a tax-exempt property gets assessed, the law requires the tax be paid before you can challenge the loss of exemption. That doesn’t seem fair and it doesn’t afford equal protection. I do not believe it is appropriate to place an undue burden placed on tax-exempt organizations like churches, or colleges, or youth service organizations? Sounds like when you had to pay before you could vote.”
The Diocese of Fond du Lac is a part of The Episcopal Church and the worldwide Anglican Communion with over 5,700 baptized members worshiping in 37 locations across the northeastern third of the state of Wisconsin. For information visit www.diofdl.org