Bad acting

1

The decision by the Tisbury board of assessors to assess property taxes on the M.V. Playhouse is poorly conceived, lacks transparency, suggests a misunderstanding of the Playhouse mission, ignores precedent of other similar theaters across Massachusetts, and is no way to treat fellow community members.

This all started with a memo to nonprofits in the community just about a year ago. In that initial email from Meghan Montesion on behalf of the assessor’s office, nearly two dozen nonprofits received the same message.

“It is about that time to begin filing the annual 3ABC Form for the next fiscal year. This year the board of assessors will be doing a compliance with each of our exempt organizations for auditing reasons. Since this is the case we will be requesting additional documentation from everyone who files so we can have current and up-to-date documentation in all our files.

In additional to a completed 3ABC and the documentation that is required with that, please send in a current Articles of Organization and also the 1B3 form that is attached in this email. We will need to check the organization with the State’s Attorney General’s office, so please make sure all filings are current with them as well. If you have any questions feel free to contact me. Happy Holidays!”

Happy holidays, indeed. Where in that message is the warning that this is additional scrutiny aimed at putting some nonprofits back onto the tax rolls? Why not add a line that states failure to provide documentation may result in revocation of the exempt status, which happened to four previously exempt organizations?

Guess that wouldn’t jibe with the “happy holidays” message at the end.

There’s a bit of a he said/she said about what happened next. The board of assessors claim to have asked for more information from M.V. Playhouse, and it was not provided.

An email exchange received through a public records request shows Montesion asking for information on where the Playhouse receives rental income beyond the occasional baby shower. She also asks for clarification on the Playhouse’s educational programs, and whether they’re free.

Geneva Corwin, the Playhouse business manager, wrote back asking for a deadline, and Montesion wrote that the next meeting would be June 27. “I just wouldn’t want a decision to be made if there is information they don’t have,” Montesion wrote.

M.V. Playhouse board members and employees say they provided information, including documentation for what they say is an irrelevant side deal they have with Sandy Ray for parking, as well as some descriptions of programs in person.

So, lesson learned for the M.V. Playhouse — put everything in writing.

But, still, when the assessors met on July 11 (we’re not sure what became of that June 27 meeting mentioned in Montesion’s email, because meeting minutes posted online go only through May) to consider M.V. Playhouse’s status and found they had not provided enough information, we’re not sure why the board didn’t hit the pause button and ask for the executive director, the board chairman, or both to come to the board’s next meeting.

Instead, assessors took a vote to assess the M.V. Playhouse — by their own admission ending any conversation that could be had about it, because once a decision is made and sent to the state Department of Revenue, it takes an appeal to change things.

But wait, there’s more. The board of assessors and its staff waited until Sept. 25 to send a letter to the M.V. Playhouse alerting them to the decision. More than two months after the vote — blindsiding Playhouse staff and board members.

Board of assessors chairman Angela Cywinski initially told us during those two months the board sought more information through staff from the M.V. Playhouse. But she was mistaken, her sister-in-law, Ann Marie Cywinski, a paid assessor, told us in a follow-up email. “I have since spoken with Angela, and she was incorrect, there were no additional emails sent/received …”

Ridiculous. The right hand doesn’t appear to know what the left is doing.

The board of assessors loses all credibility in this situation.

So which is it? Did the Playhouse not provide enough information, or was the board certain that this organization, which had been tax-exempt for 25 years, no longer fit within the definition of a charitable organization?

The latter seems like a stretch, because other similar nonprofit theaters, like the Berkshire Theatre Group, are exempt from property taxes.

So all of this appears to be over the perception that M.V. Playhouse was uncooperative. “If somebody can’t be bothered giving us information, we can’t look the other way,” assessor Cynthia Richard told The Times.

That’s no way to make a decision.

Town administrator Jay Grande said a meeting is being planned between board of selectmen and assessors, but how much selectmen can do is unclear.

The board of assessors is an elected, independent board, so it may be up to voters to hold its membership accountable. Meanwhile, the board of assessors should quickly approve the abatement once it’s filed, and move on from this misguided decision.