Updated 4 pm
A decision to assess property taxes for the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse at 24 Church St. in Vineyard Haven has board members fuming, and could cost the nonprofit close to $8,000 per year in taxes.
“This is crazy, we’ve been tax-exempt since the Playhouse got started,” Gerry Yukevich, the board’s treasurer, told The Times. Yukevich penned a Letter to the Editor making the public aware of the decision by the board of assessors to tax the property.
For 25 years, the Playhouse has been considered exempt from property taxes, Arnie Reisman, chairman of the board of directors, told The Times. “Where are we going to get the money?” Reisman said. “We don’t know.”
Ann Marie Cywinski, assistant assessor, said the decision is spelled out in the Sept. 25 letter to the Playhouse executive director, MJ Bruder Munafo, stating the organization does not meet the definition of being established for “literary, benevolent, charitable, or temperance purposes.”
Angela Cywinski, the sister-in-law of Ann Marie and the board’s chairman, said a review of nonprofit’s tax filing showed only about 5 percent of its budget going toward education. “I stand behind this decision,” said Angela Cywinski, who works as the paid assessor in Aquinnah. “I looked at everything.”
Cynthia Richard, a member of the board of assessors, said the board looks at nonprofit organizations closely each year, though she acknowledged this year they were more closely scrutinized.
An email sent to a couple of dozen Tisbury nonprofits Dec. 8 asked each of them to file appropriate applications to document their exempt status. The information was needed for “auditing reasons,” according to the email. There is no hint in that email that the board might begin assessing nonprofits.
Richard said staff sought more information through emails, and some organizations requested hearings.
“We’re trying to protect the taxpayers,” Richard said. “Everybody is complaining about taxes. Every parcel that comes off the tax rolls increases the tax rate, and people don’t understand that.”
Richard said every organization reviewed was asked for more information. Some provided it. The M.V. Playhouse did not. “If somebody can’t be bothered giving us information, we can’t look the other way,” she said.
Emails were sent seeking information on rental income the Playhouse receives, and details on educational programs and whether they are free.
Geneva Corwin, the business manager, told The Times that Munafo went in person to answer the questions posed in the email.
But Meghan Montession told The Times Munafo only provided information on rental income. Other details about the organization she researched for the board from the Playhouse website.
Playhouse board member Paula Lyons, in a follow-up email, wrote that during her visit to town hall she specifically asked Montession if there was anything the organization did wrong, and was told no. “I then asked if we failed in any way to answer requests for information and she said no!” Lyons wrote. Every request for information was answered, she wrote.
The M.V. Playhouse building and land are assessed at $875,000. Based on last year’s tax rate (this year’s is not set yet), the nonprofit would be charged $7,811. With an annual budget of about $650,000, that’s more than 1 percent.
If an abatement is filed and the Playhouse provides the necessary information, “all of this could be moot,” Angela Cywinski said.
The Playhouse’s exempt status was reviewed against state law, Ann Marie Cywinski said.
“The organization must be organized for charitable purposes, and must actually operate as a public charity,” the letter states. “Its dominant purposes and activities must benefit the public at large, not just a limited group of people.”
It’s that last phrase that’s really drawn the ire of Yukevich, Reisman, and Lyons.
The nonprofit theater operates year-round, offering a variety of plays, staged readings, and professional workshops on its Patricia Neal Stage. It also shows movies.
“We really don’t believe they understand all that we do,” Lyons said.
“We provide a major contribution to what happens on this Island,” Yukevich said. “It’s not financial, but a different type of currency. Asking donors for money to pay for street cleaning is absurd.”
Reisman wrote to the board requesting a hearing. It was denied, he said.
Ann Marie Cywinski explained that once the assessment was set and the decision made, it’s in the hands of the Massachusetts Department of Revenue.
During her visit to town hall, where she could not get her hands on meeting minutes, Lyons said, she was pretty much told to “lawyer up.”
The Times also requested minutes from the July 11 meeting, and was told they were not available. The board’s minutes online only go through May.
Ann Marie Cywinski said there are other nonprofits that have been added back to the tax rolls, but those organizations did not meet the March 1 deadline to be tax-exempt. She declined to name those organizations.
The M.V. Playhouse has been told it can appeal the decision, but only after it pays its first quarterly tax bill. That appeal will have to go to the Massachusetts Department of Revenue, Yukevich said.
M.V. Playhouse is prepared to fight. They’ve looked at other theaters across the state that own their own properties, and none pays property taxes.
“They’re going to have to pay money for lawyers. We’re going to have to pay money for lawyers. It’s a big mistake, and costly,” Yukevich said. “I don’t get worked up about too many things, but this has me worked up.”
Nicholas Paleologos, executive director of the Berkshire Theatre Group, said neither Pittsfield nor Stockbridge charges the nonprofit for property taxes. “It’s a terrible idea for small and midsize nonprofits,” he said. For small organizations, it’s a “big hit,” Paleologos said.
Richard said Tisbury can’t base its decision on what other cities and towns do, and Ann Marie Cywinski pointed to a section of the law that shows an organization has to show more than its nonprofit status to be exempt.
Yukevich is disappointed in the town’s approach. “It’s a big waste of money and a real mean-spirited approach to cultural organizations,” he said.
Other town leaders were unaware of the change. Town administrator Jay Grande confirmed in an email that he only learned about it after the M.V. Playhouse board members inquired about it. “My understanding is that this will be a future agenda discussion item when the selectmen and assessors meet jointly,” he wrote. No date has been set for that meeting.
Lost in the decision is Munafo’s role in helping to create the Vineyard Haven Cultural District, Yukevich said.
The building was built in 1833 as the Methodist Meeting House, and in 1855 was purchased as a public meetinghouse named Capawock Hall, according to the Playhouse website. It had served as the Masonic Lodge for 87 years when it was purchased for a theater in 1982. The Playhouse purchased the property from Eileen Wilson and Isabella McKamy in 1993.
The idea of taxing nonprofits, or at the very least getting payments in lieu of taxes, known as a PILOT, is nothing new, and cash-strapped cities and towns have been looking at ways to recoup some of that money.
Lyons, who once worked for the City of Boston, is sympathetic, but she doesn’t understand the decision in this instance. “It’s a big struggle to avoid raising taxes on homeowners. But this decision is not made with full understanding of everything we do,” she said. “The Playhouse is a magnet bringing people into town in the evening, some of them going to eat at restaurants. That larger concept as a magnet of helping the business community doesn’t seem to be on their radar.”
Updated to correct the board of assessors chairman (the town’s website has not been updated) and to add comments from Angela Cywinski. – Ed.