Written by Victoria Caruso-Davis Friday, 03 July 2009 00:00At a special meeting June 24, the Westbury Board of Education voted 6-0 in favor of absolving a $325,000 tax lien against Bethel United Pentecostal Church. The unanimous decision came just days before Bethel’s temporary stay was set to expire.
The lien was comprised of penalties, interest and fees accrued by Bethel during the four-year period it took to settle a change in zoning claim inherited 11 years ago. When Bethel purchased the Jericho Turnpike property from Thomas Kontogiannis in 1998 the site the church currently sits on was farmland with an agricultural assessment but, because a change occurred before the eight-year mandated timeframe, a state-instituted tax rollback was implemented.
To cover the back taxes, along with interest and fees, $700,000 in purchase funds was placed in escrow at closing and, in 2002, the Westbury School District received approximately $500,000 in imposed property tax monies. However, in the four years it took to settle the rollback, an additional $400,000 in penalties, interest and fees – some $325,000 due to the school district with the remainder to the county – accrued.
Since tax liens cannot be placed on individuals and former owner Kontogiannis is serving jail time on bribery charges unrelated to the church property, a tax lien was placed on the property with the burden falling on the church.
Bethel’s Administrative Pastor the Rev. William Cook, however, argued that the church was not responsible as it is tax-exempt.
In May, the issue got heated when Westbury resident and attorney Robert M. Manners and board of education trustee Larry Wornum garnered community and media attention by filing separate petitions with the New York State Education Department. Both alleged that Superintendent of Schools Dr. Constance Clark-Snead and Board of Education President Pless Dickerson withheld information from fellow board members and the community on several key issues, including the tax issue with Bethel.
With the church’s 60-day stay slated to expire July 3, no decision by the board of education would have caused Bethel to either settle the fine, risk foreclosure or take legal action. Fortunately, said Rev. Cook, it did not come to that.
“This was a complex legal issue but at the end of the day fairness and justice prevailed,” the pastor told The Westbury Times, adding, “I am thankful that the Westbury Board of Education was able to look into this matter in great detail and see that it was the former owner’s obligation and that it was not fair to punish any individual for the mistakes of another. It was a long journey that was well worth it in the end.”
According to Dickerson, “The board heard the community and took many factors into consideration. In making this unanimous decision, we wanted to make certain we acted in a manner that did not harm the district or Bethel Church.”
At press time, the ultimate decision to absolve Bethel of the tax lien lay in the hands of the Nassau County Legislature.