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Grand Rapids Says Nonprofit Acton Institute Not A Charitable Institution

City denied think tank's property tax exemption application; says Acton owes $91,000 in taxes

Officials from the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids are scheduled to go before the city's Board of Review today to appeal a decision that it owes $91,000 in property taxes on its newly renovated building and parking lot downtown.

According to the denial letter City Assessor Scott A. Engerson sent to Acton, the nonprofit think tank "does not meet non-profit charitable requirements according to case law."

The Acton Institute's renovated building in Grand Rapids.

The letter did not provide specifics about the case law, but in a comment posted to a story on MLive, a reporter said Grand Rapids City Attorney Catherine Mish told him the case law dealt with the Ladies Literary Club and that "Acton does not qualify as a non-profit educational institution under state property tax law because it's not part of educational system that's provided by the state and supported by public funds."

Neither Mish nor Engerson responded to emails and phone calls requesting comment on the case law the city cited, what other nonprofit organizations in the city have been denied similar requests or other questions aimed at providing some clarity as to why the city thinks Acton is not a charitable organization.

"We are disappointed with the city assessor’s ruling, but we are confident that our appeal will be successful," Acton Executive Director Kris Mauren said in a statement. "Not only has Acton been successfully operating as a nonprofit since its founding in Grand Rapids in 1990, but our local educational, research and community outreach during these nearly 25 years has been extensive and growing."

State law allows tax exemptions for a wide variety of operations and organizations including nonprofit theaters, libraries, "educational, or scientific institutions; nonprofit organization fostering development of literature, music, painting, or sculpture." It also provides exemptions for nonprofit charitable institutions.

The Acton Institute is a 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to research and education based on free market economics and religion. The think tank describes itself as promoting "a free and virtuous society characterized by individual liberty and sustained by religious principles." The IRS describes 501(c)(3)'s on its website under the heading, "Tax Information for Charitable Organizations."

In addition to organizing seminars and publishing work based on its research, the Acton Institute holds a yearly, four-day university seminar that brings in faculty and participants from around the world. It is attended by students, professors, everyday citizens and business leaders, and Acton routinely covers the cost for some community members and students who attend, said John Couretas, an Acton spokesman.

Acton spent $7 million buying and renovating its building on Fulton Street. The city now values that building and an adjacent parking lot at a combined taxable value of $1.8 million a year. 

If the Board of Review does not make a decision on the exemption appeal, the case will be moved to the Michigan Tax Tribunal.

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