Pastor Richard Parsons didn’t realize his New Consecration Temple had lost its tax-exempt status in Schenectady until a private company began foreclosure proceedings on its State Street sanctuary.
By that time, the property assessed at nearly a half-million dollars had accrued two years in tax liens the city had inadvertantly lumped in with a group sold to American Tax Funding. And while Parsons couldn’t recall the exact amount the company wanted to stave off foreclosure, he said it was far more than the modest congregation could ever afford.
“My first response was, ‘What are we going to do?’ ” he recalled.
Parsons’ church wasn’t alone. More than a dozen houses of worship were facing similar issues across the city, including the Unitarian Universalist Society of Schenectady, which faced losing the iconic building designed by prominent modern architect Edward Durrell Stone.
John Reschovsky, the society’s vice president, said the situation seemed to be one that was hopelessly spinning of control. The congregations tried to appeal to Schenectady, but there was little city leaders could do with the private company holding the liens.
“What a mess it really was,” he said.
But that was last year. Today, the congregations again have their tax-exempt status and their halls of worship — free of any tax encumbrance — as the result of a unique partnership between faith-based groups and a broad spectrum of politicians.
On Friday, the churches and temples that were once facing closure rejoiced in their unified effort to fix what originally seemed an insurmountable problem. Reschovsky, who was among the leaders who spearheaded the campaign, praised the unity of the congregations, both in saving their sanctuaries and in continuing to serve a critical role in helping the needs of the community at large.
“As people of faith, what bonds us together is much stronger than what separates us,” he told a crowd of about 75 people.
The congregations presented recognition awards to 18 individuals who played a critical role in helping resolve the issue. Among them were members of the City Council, local state legislators and other key leaders in the community.
“We celebrate tonight because people came together and worked across party lines to make right a wrong,” said Reschovsky
Though the city is still negotiating with ATF on whether it will need to repay some of the money it received when the liens were sold, legislation passed at the state level has rescued the affected churches from foreclosure. Assemblyman Phil Steck, D-Colonie, working with Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, crafted legislation that allowed for the continued tax-exempt status of religious nonprofit organizations still carrying out their religious mission.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo approved a bill retroactively applying tax-exempt status to the organizations in October. The fix backdated the tax-exempt status for the organizations facing liens, effectively negating them.
“It really was a group effort,” said Heather Dukes, one of the attorneys who started working with the churches and temples at the beginning of the issue.
Santabarbara, who started working with the issue even before being in office, recalled visiting some of the churches last year and seeing firsthand the impact they were making in the community, whether it was making a hot meal for the needy on the holidays or hosting drives to stock local food pantries.
“We couldn’t let them disappear,” he said. “We couldn’t let these churches shut their doors.”