WILL Wins Major Tax Case Against Milwaukee
The City of Milwaukee has for the past three years levied property taxes on a 4.4-acre parcel of land owned by the Jerusalem Empowered African Methodist Episcopal Church (“JEAMEC”), a small congregation on the city’s north side. The church has repeatedly asked for a tax exemption, and has been repeatedly denied, because in the city’s opinion two acres of that parcel aren’t “necessary” for the church, and therefore can be taxed.
WILL has been fighting against that tax on JEAMEC’s behalf for a year and a half in the courts. Today, Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Christopher R. Foley granted the relief we have been seeking. First, he declared unconstitutional a provision of state law that requires a property owner to pay a disputed tax by January 31st of the following year, or they cannot challenge their exemption denial in court, at least as applied to nonprofit benevolent organizations who cannot afford the tax. Judge Foley agreed with WILL’s arguments that denying people access to the courts because they cannot pay thousands of dollars in disputed taxes first denies them their right to due process of law under the U.S. and Wisconsin Constitutions.
Judge Foley also agreed that JEAMEC’s property met the legal requirements to be tax exempt. In discovery, WILL learned that the City’s own tax assessors, who specifically went out and surveyed the church and comparable properties, believed that the church should be tax exempt. They had no idea why the City was trying to tax the church, and the city’s file for the property revealed no explanation.
“Our clients are incredibly relieved,” said Tom Kamenick, the WILL attorney who argued the case in front of Judge Foley. “I’m told it’s not often the gallery bursts out into a standing ovation when a judge issues a ruling. This congregation has finally escaped the threat of tax foreclosure that’s been hanging over them. Sometimes, you can fight city hall.” Rick Esenberg, President and General Counsel of WILL, added, “This is a good day for taxpayers. Kudos to my colleague and to the good people at JEAMEC.”