Updated Dec. 1
Reviews like the one done by Tisbury’s board of assessors that resulted in Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse being assessed property taxes are a matter of routine in Island assessing offices, and can sometimes result in nonprofits paying property taxes.
In Oak Bluffs, for example, the VFW is now being assessed for a portion of its building because it’s operating as a restaurant, MacGregor Anderson, the town’s assistant assessor, told The Times. “We talked to them early on, and they understood it completely,” Anderson said.
A controversy continues to swirl in Tisbury, where a more detailed audit resulted in longtime nonprofit Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse being assessed taxes for the first time in 25 years. Board members are as upset with the way the Tisbury board of assessors notified them as they are with the decision, which they say lacks an overall understanding of the Playhouse and what it does for the community.
Records show the assessors voted on July 11 to deny the M.V. Playhouse’s request for tax-exempt status. Yet, they weren’t notified until Sept. 25.
Draft minutes were finally released Thursday by the board of assessors, but offer little insight into the board’s thinking. A list of two dozen nonprofits is listed, and the board’s actions on each one. Several nonprofits had their exempt status revoked for not responding with the proper documentation at all, records show.
Angela Cywinski, the elected chairman of the Tisbury board, asked that draft minutes be released after learning that the board hadn’t posted any on the town’s website since May.
Playhouse officials had no immediate comment on the release of the minutes, which they had also requested after learning of the vote but still haven’t received.
On Friday, Angela Cywinski continued to defend the decision, even though it didn’t happen the way she first described.
Cywinskii said office staff reached out to M.V. Playhouse staff members after the July 11 vote and before the letter went out two months later. In an email to The Times, assistant assessor Ann Marie Cywinski, the town’s paid staff member and Angela’s sister-in-law, wrote that wasn’t the case.
“Yes, I thought that’s what happened,” Angela Cywinski said Friday. “That’s how I interpreted it. I was wrong.”
Even knowing that, Angela Cywinski defended the decision to assess the Playhouse, saying it was based on the information they received from the Playhouse staff prior to the vote, and that it didn’t fit the definition of “benevolence.” Once again, she reiterated that the Playhouse can appeal.
Responding to Angela Cywinski, Paula Lyons, a Playhouse board member, cited the law, which states that in order to be exempt, a nonprofit must have “literary, benevolent, charitable, scientific, or temperance purposes,” to be considered exempt from property taxes.
“Benevolent? We are a LITERARY nonprofit,” Lyons wrote, putting the word literary in all caps to emphasize where the board believes the assessors missed the mark.
“This is not an oddity,” West Tisbury principal assessor Dawn Barnes said of an organization suddenly losing its tax-exempt status. Every year, assessors are required to review exempt properties to make sure they fulfill the requirements, she said. “Assessors may not choose to go to the depths Tisbury did, but if a nonprofit is not meeting requirements to deserve the exemption, then assessors are required to put the property back on the rolls,” Barnes said.
That’s precisely what happened in West Tisbury in 2015, when the board of assessors there decided to tax the American Youth Hostel in that town, saying that it did not meet the criteria under state statute. Ultimately, American Youth Hostel filed an abatement that went before the Appellate Tax Board. Even there, it was a split vote of 3-2 to return the hostel to exempt status.
M.V. Playhouse officials have vowed to appeal Tisbury’s ruling.
SailMV, which purchased a residential property for housing in Oak Bluffs, is challenging a decision by the board of assessors in that town to tax the property at 1 Concord Ave.
This year, Oak Bluffs assessors also began assessing taxes for a portion of property owned by Alliance Community Church, Anderson said. The property is being occupied as housing by people not affiliated with the church, he said.
Jo-Ann Resendes, assistant assessor in Edgartown, said she can’t remember the status of any exempt properties being changed in that town. “We review them every year,” she said.
Chilmark assessors did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.
In Aquinnah, where Angela Cywinski is the paid assessor, she recommended the board revoke the exempt status of a church parsonage when she took over in 2007. The parsonage was being used for housing, she said.
Taxes were never paid, and now the property is in tax title. The issue has been the topic of conversation at recent selectmen’s meetings in Aquinnah, which Cywinski said is directed at a longstanding feud between the board of selectmen and the board of assessors.
Aquinnah has only three properties that qualify for exemptions, Cywinski said. Of note, she said, when two of them filed incomplete forms this year, she called them for clarifications that protected their status.
Updated to include comment from Lyons. – Ed.