M.V. Playhouse tax situation takes center stage

Staff, board members, and patrons urge board of assessors to grant abatement.

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MJ Munafo, artistic director at Martha's Vineyard Playhouse, lightens the mood at the beginning of the assessors' hearing by pretending to give a dramatic reading of her statement. Assessor Angela Cywinski, center, offers to have her use the Katharine Cornell stage. - George Brennan

Staff and board members of the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse finally got a chance to plead the case that they deserve to be exempt from property taxes before the Tisbury board of assessors.

In a hearing Thursday afternoon, Playhouse officials were promised 15 minutes to make their points. Some 45 minutes later, they left Katharine Cornell Theater hopeful they’d offered enough evidence that the theater meets the definition under state tax laws of a benevolent organization.

Officially, the M.V. Playhouse is seeking an abatement after paying its first-quarter tax bill, because in September its exempt status as a nonprofit was revoked. When the decision was made public in November, it raised a furor in the community.

Assessors insisted they didn’t have enough information to renew the exemption. “We had questions,” assessor Cynthia Richard said Thursday, explaining the board’s decision. “We didn’t get enough information prior to tax bills.” An organization can be exempt from federal taxes, but not necessarily under state law, she said. “We’re looking for what the benefit to the community is.”

Playhouse officials insisted they had provided all the information they were asked for, and didn’t understand why assessors didn’t seek more before making the decision — especially since it was a change after 25 years of being tax-exempt.

The only way to deal with the tax situation once the town’s tax information was sent to the state Department of Revenue for certification was for the Playhouse to pay its $3,769.89 quarterly tax bill and file for an abatement.

At the conclusion of Thursday’s abatement hearing, buried in a sea of information about the theater’s programs, workshops, and camps for children, Angela Cywinski, chairman of the board of assessors, said the picture became clearer. She blamed the M.V. Playhouse website, which she said lacks the kind of detailed information provided Thursday, for assessors making the decision they made. “I have a lot more clarity than I did six months ago,” she said.

After the meeting, assistant assessor Ann Marie Cywinski, Angela’s sister-in-law, told The Times the board has two more months to make a decision on the abatement, which was filed on Jan. 28. She said no decision would be made until Roy Cutrer, who was not at Thursday’s meeting, has a chance to review the audiotape.

Giving a detailed statement to start the hearing, MJ Munafo, executive and artistic director, told assessors that M.V. Playhouse meets the state’s definition for eligibility as a tax-exempt nonprofit. “We, as required, are a literary nonprofit, as is every nonprofit theater in the commonwealth,” she said.

M.V. Playhouse has an annual budget of $650,000, and every penny goes back into paying professional actors, housing them, paying three staff members, royalties, and everything else it takes to put on performances and programs, Munafo said.

She pointed out that everything done by the theater in the off-season is geared toward local year-rounders, providing discounts for military veterans, who get four free tickets a year, as well as those on income assistance programs like EBT. Winter prices, particularly for popular musical revues, are just $5 or $10.

There were about 10 people in the audience for Thursday’s hearing — all of them providing either anecdotes or evidence on why M.V. Playhouse should not be taxed.

Kenneth Ivory, a theater patron, said he and his daughter sit side by side at theater performances: “It’s a family thing. It’s a bonding thing. I so appreciate that they have that entertainment there. To have that tax burden on them would cause them nothing but pain.”

Gerry Yukevich, a retired physician who has acted on the Playhouse stage, spoke about how that experience helped him become a part of the community. “I’m a witness to it. I’m a participant in it. I believe in it,” he told assessors. “I think it’s one of the finest things on the Island.”

As treasurer for the M.V. Playhouse, he relayed how each member of the board of directors is required to give at least $2,500 per year to help keep the operation afloat. The Island’s generous donors make up the rest of the annual budget, he said.

Throughout the 45 minutes, Playhouse representatives answered questions about current programs and why some programs, like one offered to schoolchildren during the school year, had been eliminated. (It has to do with time-on-learning, not the theater’s desire to provide educational programs, Munafo said.)

In answering a question of what distinguishes the theater from other venues, Wallace Bullock, a 35-year member, said, “The element of continuous live theater makes us a cultural institution.”

Munafo said research shows that the Playhouse is unique on an Island known for its culture. “We are the longest running professional theater on Martha’s Vineyard in history,” she said. “We take some pride in that.”

There were some questions about letting groups and individuals use the theater’s lobby for functions like birthday parties. Angela Cywinski said it’s important that the Playhouse doesn’t charge rent, but instead asks for a suggested donation.

Munafo said that’s the case: “Believe me, we make no profit. We squeak through every year.”