Aquinnah selectmen meet with pastor on church taxing

The Rev. Leo Christian says issue should be solved in-house.

Formed in 1693 to serve members of the Wampanoag Tribe, the Gay Head Community Baptist Church is recognized as the nation’s oldest continuous Native American church congregation, will celebrate its 325th anniversary this weekend. — Derrill Bazzy

Aquinnah selectmen revisited the church parsonage tax issue at a meeting Tuesday with assessor Marsha Shufrin and unexpected guest the Rev. Leo Christian.

Shufrin said the assessors discussed two possible legal remedies to the tax lien proposed by the assistant assessor at a meeting Monday night. The first, according to Shufrin, is an outside agency or developer could take over the property as a renewal property. “If this were to occur, the assessors, the selectmen, and the treasurer could create a tax agreement to forgive 75 percent of taxes,” she said.

She suggested if the tribe were to come in and take over the property, they could develop it and turn the property back over to the church.

Another possible pathway she mentioned was having the town take over the property and repair the septic and the well. The treasurer would then add the repair charges to the tax lien and the town would become the landlord.

Town administrator Jeffrey Madison responded to these suggestions, saying the assistant assessor does not have the basis to make any legal propositions.

“What basis does the assistant assessor have to make this recommendation to the town? With all due respect to the assistant assessor, of which frankly I have very little, threatening the church, it threatens me and everyone here. This town should do everything it can to get rid of that lien and give that land back to the church. Frankly I’m without words,” Madison said.

Shufrin reminded the board she was only relaying the information discussed at the assessors’ meeting the night prior.

Selectman Jim Newman said it was not clear to him why the assessors started taxing the church land in the first place. “We certainly don’t want to take that building from them, nor do we want to sell it from underneath them,” he said.

Assistant assessor Angela Cywinski told the Times in a later phone call that the church parsonage was assessed because they were no longer using it for the purpose of religion. “Of course I didn’t like taxing the church, but it was legally necessary and permissible,” Cywinski said. She said the assessors and the selectmen must work together to move forward with this ongoing issue.

“We are all in this together. For Jeff to inject those opinions into the conversation, I feel that he is weaponizing the very intention of those meetings, and showing he doesn’t have confidence in the person who was charged with doing the job,” she said. “This is going to require legal advice and better communication between the boards.”

During the conversation, the Rev. Leo Christian, interim pastor for the Gay Head Community Baptist Church, walked into the town hall. “Leo, God bless you, the Lord has spoken. Come in here and help us out with this problem,” Madison said.

The issue of taxing the church parsonage after it was made uninhabitable by a septic failure has recently been a point of contention between the selectmen and the assessors. One of the major issues the two boards encountered was the lack of communication with a member of the church.

Christian’s unexpected arrival at the meeting provided a much-needed bridge between the church and the town.

Christian told Shufrin he received no notice or dollar amount of taxes on the church prior to receiving the injunction from the state declaring the lien, and that state moneys would no longer be available to the church, so long as the lien is in place.

“To be very honest with you, I have been to your office and asked what we owed. I have never gotten that information,” Christian said. “What do we owe? We want to pay what we owe. We could raise that money tomorrow.”

Christian made it clear to Shufrin the issue isn’t personal, and he does not hold any one individual responsible. “This is a complicated issue, and I am not putting blame on anyone,” Christian noted. “This town has worked together well. There is no one who wants ill will toward anyone.”

This weekend is the 325th anniversary of the church, an event that Christian said he “hoped would not be clouded by this issue.”

He explained that the more people that are involved with the issue, the harder it will be to put to bed. “I want to solve this in-house. It should be between the church, the town, and the assessors,” he said. “The church entered into an agreement with the town on good faith to make that affordable housing. You’ve already taken three roads on our property without asking. To charge us tax on land that you use, there is something wrong with that.”

The selectmen agreed to hold a meeting between members of the community who are involved with this issue, in order to address the situation directly.

Selectman Julianne Vanderhoop said the town has money available to make the necessary repairs to the septic and the well. “The board of health, the CPC, there is money to make those repairs. That lien is the only thing standing in the way. We will create a meeting between the different town entities who are directly involved,” she said.


Game on

In other business, the Wampanoag Tribe of Aquinnah is looking to move forward with its casino gaming project in the coming months. A letter from the tribe to the board stated, “The tribe understands your concern and interest in our gaming project, and look forward to scheduling a meeting with you once we have more fully developed our plans and have more certainty around the details of the project. We also anticipate requesting a meeting between our respective legal counsel at that time to discuss any potential regulatory or public safety issues that may impact the town.”

Ronald Rappaport, the town’s attorney, drafted a letter for selectmen in response to the tribe, which the selectmen signed. “We look forward to the meeting referred to in the letter and the further meeting between respective legal counsel. We assume that no sitework or construction activity will occur in connection with this project prior to the meetings referred to above. If our assumption is incorrect, please let us know forthwith.”

The tribe won approval to open a bingo hall on tribe land after a long legal battle with the state, the town, and a community group, after the U.S. Supreme Court decided it would not hear the case. The tribe has since announced a partnership with Global Gaming Solutions of the Chickasaw Nation, but has released no further details.