Ursinus Retains Its Tax-free Status A School District Wanted The College To Pay. Its Yearly Bill Would Have Been About $500,000.

Posted: July 02, 1994

Ursinus College dodged a $500,000 bullet yesterday when the Montgomery County Board of Assessment Appeals rejected a challenge by the Perkiomen Valley School District and allowed the Collegeville institution to keep its tax-exempt status.

Earlier this year, the school district questioned the property-tax exemptions of four local nonprofits - Ursinus, the 4-H Foundation in Skippack, the Veterans of Foreign War post in Trappe and the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Philadelphia's Camps Reeta-Arthur in Lower Frederick Township.

The district had argued that the institutions did not meet the legal definition of a charitable organization and should, therefore, be expected to pay their fair share of taxes.

Although Perkiomen Valley lost its case against Ursinus - by far the largest of the four organizations, with an estimated annual tax liability of $500,000 - the school district won a split decision on the others.

In a one-page statement, the three-member county Board of Assessment Appeals said it would strip the VFW Post and the Jewish Community Centers camps of their exemptions and allow the 4-H Foundation and Ursinus to keep theirs.

The board's decisions come at a time when a number of communities are challenging the property-tax exemptions that nonprofits, particularly colleges and universities, now have. But the implications of Ursinus' victory are unclear, because the appeals board did not elaborate on how it reached that decision.

Board chairman Raymond McConnell was not available for comment. Board member Dennis J. Sharkey declined to comment because he said some of the groups might appeal.

Hudson Scattergood, Ursinus' vice president for college relations, called the ruling "an important statement about the fact that private higher- education institutions in the state of Pennsylvania are performing a public charity."

Wendy G. Rothstein, who represented the school district in the case, said the decision disappointed her. The school board has not had an opportunity to discuss an appeal, which must be filed within 30 days, she said.

Most of the new property-tax revenue the district sought would have come

from Ursinus. Seventeen parcels, including its main campus area and 12 dormitories, were challenged. Although the VFW and the Jewish Community Centers face paying property taxes, their share would amount to only $20,000 a year for the school district, Rothstein said.

Even so, "that would be extremely difficult for an organization that does not operate for profit, like ours, to pay," said Thomas M. Keenan, who represents the 250 members of the Trappe VFW Post, who would probably be responsible for $5,000 to $7,000 of that sum.

Stewart M. Weintraub, attorney for Camps Reeta-Arthur, said he would recommend that his client appeal. "While I'm disappointed, I'm not surprised. The entire atmosphere involving nonprofit organizations in the commonwealth today makes it very difficult to obtain tax-exempt status."

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