A detailed report in the Times Herald-Record by Hema Easley and James Walsh, indicates a high level of frustration with the Watchtower’s expansion in the town of Warwick and surrounding area. Buying up property and paying very little in local taxes is making the town officials of Warwick, NY, begin to look closer at Watchtower operations.
“Flush with cash from the piecemeal sale of its world headquarters and associated properties in Brooklyn,” the Council are questioning the tax-exempt status as Jehovah’s Witnesses build a new 1.6-million-square-foot headquarters in Warwick.
The Warwick premises includes offices, residential buildings, a cafeteria, a vehicle maintenance building, an infirmary and a parking garage.
To support this mammoth effort, Watchtower has purchased properties across Orange County and nearby areas. The properties include apartment buildings, single-family homes, a warehouse, a former corporate office building, hotels, offices, and land approved for building residential units. It is expanding its printing press and residential premises in the Town of Shawangunk in southern Ulster.
Yet the Watchtower Society pays almost no property taxes.
Town Assessor Dennis Ketcham denied the exemption, viewing Watchtower’s use as industrial or commercial, rather than religious.
“I didn’t believe constructing bathrooms met the religious use test,” he said in a recent interview.”
State Sen. John Bonacic in an email to the Times Herald-Record said,”that he continues to push for legislation that would combat abuses of property tax exemptions in New York. He is currently carrying four bills in the Senate to address this issue.”
The town officials appear nervous of litigation, not least because Watchtower is a particularly litigious organization. A history of court decisions in favor of religious organizations puts municipalities in a no-win situation, said Jeanne Zaino, a professor of political science at Iona College in Westchester County.
“They can either grant the tax exemption and lose tax dollars,” she said, “or deny it and prepare for a court challenge, the outcome of which is uncertain.” She said, “Watchtower is better positioned for court action because of the money it has. The downside is that when property tax exemptions are granted, the rest of the taxpayers have to pick up the tab.”
Representatives from Jehovah’s Witnesses argue that the Town will benefit from job creation. But any jobs created will no doubt be for Jehovah’s Witnesses who are brought in from out of town. These will not be jobs for local unemployed people. They also argue the area will benefit from tourism, but questions can be raised about the reality of tourism. What is probably meant is that Jehovah’s Witnesses will arrive in buses with packed lunches to visit a printing press and surrounding buildings. They will be whisked away to dedicated accommodation. The idea that the general public will stop by because the location is a tourist attraction is disingenuous.
The comments by locals under the article indicate a high level of frustration.
One commentator questioned why the organisation would want tax exemption on a sports facility, especially given that Jehovah’s Witnesses are discouraged from playing competitive sports or “wasting time” in activities that take them away from the preaching work.
The consensus from the Council and those commenting appears to be, Watchtower should be paying tax on commercial operations.
Times Herald-Record Watchtower’s growth strains town budgets in mid-Hudson Link
Town of Warwick – (PDF) ARCHAEOLOGICAL INVESTIGATION OF THE AREA OF POTENTIAL EFFECT FOR THE JEHOVAH’S WITNESSES WORLD HEADQUARTERS PROJECT
Watchtower purchases Inn for volunteer labor Link