Church warns of consequences if asked to contribute property tax
With the Government's plans for funding the 2017-2018 Budget schedule to be disclosed next month, the powerful and influential Jamaica Council of Churches (JCC) and the Jamaica Baptist Union are cautioning the Andrew Holness administration against interfering with the property tax exemption churches currently enjoy.
The religious groups have further charged that there will be consequences if churches are asked to pay property taxes.
Under the Property Tax Act, exemptions from property tax are given to all buildings used exclusively for religious worship and as schoolrooms, as well as the lands immediately attached to them being used as churchyards and or cemeteries.
But, with the Government seeking avenues to raise funds to plug what analysts say could be a $16-billion gap in the Budget, and recent pronouncements by Justice Minister Delroy Chuck that some $9-billion owed in property taxes, the church community has had its tails up, listening out for the slightest suggestion that they will be asked to pay property taxes.
Speaking with The Gleaner yesterday, General Secretary of the JCC Reverend Gary Harriott made it clear that churches will have to comply if they are being asked to pay property taxes, but warned that the services of the Church would be crippled as a direct consequence.
"There is partnership between the Government and the churches, so we would have to comply with the law, but what it would mean is that the churches would not be able to deliver services to communities," Harriott argued.
According to the JCC general secretary, as it is, not paying property taxes empowers churches to do skills training, counselling, conflict resolution and other community-intervention activities aimed at bettering the lives of the residents living in especially tough communities and to bring peace.
"What we are doing the Government is not doing, and if we were to pay over property taxes, it would mean that the Church would have less resources so the Government would have to take on those responsibilities."
Harriott disclosed to The Gleaner that some of the traditional churches are struggling to pay taxes for those lands owned that are not being used for worship and for burial.
Traditional churches already struggling to pay for 'non-worship' lands
The Reverend Gary Harriott, general secretary of the Jamaica Council of Churches (JCC), is downplaying the long held view that churches are raking in millions and should be able to afford paying property taxes.
"The traditional churches, unlike the new ones, have bigger parcels of lands and, let me say this, some of them are struggling to pay ... so, can you imagine if they were to be asked to pay for the lands they use for worship?"
In joining Harriott in turning back the suggestion that churches should pay property taxes, president of the Jamaica Baptist Union, The Reverend Devon Dick pointed out that other entities have been given tax breaks amounting to billions.
"Other people and political parties have been given tax breaks. If you look at the amount of tax breaks that were given to the Chinese when the sugar companies were being divested, you would say 'wow'. So I do not think there should be a problem with the Church getting a tax break given all that the Church has done," the Baptist Union president argued.
Harriott, in recognising that there was a need to collect taxes, has thrown his support behind the Government's attempt to nab tax dodgers and cheats.
"Yes, we should get the people who are not paying taxes and we should encourage people to pay," he said, while adding, "but those who have responsibility should be good stewards of the resources; must manage it properly."