Jan. 6—NEW LONDON — A church at 236 Montauk Avenue says its tax relief status was revoked early last year for failing to file a form it is not required to file.

Igreja Evangelica Avivamento da Fe, a Portuguese-speaking church with an office in Bridgeport, owns the building after purchasing the property in 2011 from Montauk Avenue Baptist Church, according to land records.

In October 2021, the church did not file the M-3 report the city requires most non-taxable properties to file every four years to maintain its tax-exempt status. In January 2022, Igreja's tax-exemption status was revoked by the City Assessor's office.

The church is being asked to pay $22,504 in taxes from July 2022 to June 2023, according to City Tax Collector Samantha Krakowiak.

City Assessor Donna Ralston in December said the church's tax-exemption status was revoked not because it failed to file the form but because it stopped using the building for religious purposes .

The church disagrees and says it has continuously held religious services and meetings.

On Tuesday, the city's finance committee, made up of all the city councilors, voted unanimously to refer the matter to the mayor's office.

Last month city Law Director Jeffery Londregan said the council could refer the matter to the state Office of Policy and Management to handle the issue or the city could enter into repayment agreement with the property owners.

Council President Reona Dyess said Wednesday that decision would be up to the mayor. She said the council could only approve an agreement for repayment.

Mayor Michael Passero said he does not believe he has the ability to waive the property tax either. He said he is going to sit down with the law director, assessor and the church to see what can be done.

Four non profits share the church

Igreja Evangelica shares the building with three other religious entities: Calvary Chapel of Eastern Connecticut; Ministerio Galaad, a Spanish-speaking church; and Recovery Church, a branch of Calvary Chapel ministering to the recovery community.

Ralston said she did not receive a report from any of the churches in 2021.

Joe Paskewich, the pastor at Calvary Chapel who has been representing the Portuguese church at meetings, said the church never received the application for the report in 2021 and it is not required to fill the form out. He said religious organizations are not listed in the application as organizations that need to re-file this form after their initial submission.

He has said the 2022 Connecticut Assessors Handbook states that "since there is no statutory requirement that a religious organization file a Tax Exempt Return, no exemption can be denied based on a religious organization's failure to file."

The handbook continues to say assessors often use the tax exempt return to gather information on the religious organizations seeking an exemption.

Ralston on Wednesday said most tax-exempt properties have to file the form every four years. She said a church does not fall under this requirement unless it changes its use or leases a portion of the church to a non-exempt organization.

Leslie Suarez, the bookkeeper for the St. Brendan the Navigator Catholic Community, said all three of its churches― St. Joseph, St. Mary Star of the Sea, and St. Paul― received the form in 2021 and she filed the "labor-intensive forms" for each church.

As bookkeeper of the churches for eight years, Suarez filed the forms in 2017 as well.

Suarez did note she had been told after filing in 2021 that churches did not have to file these forms as they are tax-exempt under certain state statutes and could call the assessor instead.

Debate over the use

At a Dec. 19 council Finance Committee meeting, Ralston said records show that Igreja Evangelica purchased the church building from Montauk Avenue Baptist Church in 2011 and signed a 15-year lease with the Baptist church as its tenant.

According to Paskewich, Montauk Avenue Baptist Church merged with Calvary Chapel in 2012 but Ralston said, according to an internet post, the Baptist church closed in 2017.

Ralston said the assessor's office did not receive a tax-exempt report from any of the entities who use the church at 236 Montauk Avenue when applications were due in October of 2021.

Ralston added that a spokesperson from Igreja Evangelica told her in December of 2021 that the church no longer was holding services and the old pastor had moved away. But a year later she received a letter from Igreja Evangelica Pastor Tcharley Silva saying there was uninterrupted use at the church.

Igreja Evangelica had an opportunity to appeal the assessor's decision to the Board of Assessment Appeals but it did not. Ralston said if an appeal had been rejected, the decision could have been further appealed to Superior Court. She said that is how such cases are handled.

Paskewich on Wednesday said he didn't know why Igreja had not appealed.

Ralston said she met with Paskewich in August, and he asked if there was anything she could do about the church's taxes that had been due the previous month. But she said she told him there was nothing she could do at that point, as the grand list had been filed.

That's when she directed the church to the City Council.

Paskewich said that in over 100 years, there has never ceased to be meetings at the church with the exception of a month during the COVID-19 pandemic and a couple of blizzards.

Paskewich provided a document showing how the organizations share the building. On Mondays to Thursdays, Minesterio Galaad hold meetings. There is also a women's Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, a Moms in Prayer support group and Calvary Chapel meeting on Wednesdays. Fridays host another Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and Saturdays are for weddings, showers and community activities. On Sundays, Calvary Chapel and Recovery Church share the building.

Councilor James Burke in December said he held his daughter's baby shower at the church and has driven by Sundays, and saw the building being used as a church.

Paskewich said the assessor has the ability to write the tax disagreement off as a mistake, according to the handbook for assessors, but Ralston said Wednesday there had been no error.

Ralston said Igreja has filed an M-3 report to regain its tax exempt status going forward listing the other churches as occupants, but some requested documents have yet to be submitted to the office.

j.vazquez@theday.com

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