WESTERLY — St. Pius X Church will render fewer tax dollars to the town following the Town Council’s decision to grant the Roman Catholic parish an exemption for property it owns where a message sign gives motorists and other passers-by something to think about.
On Monday the council voted 6-1 to grant the church an exemption for the 0.68-acre parcel at the corner of Elm and Cross streets. The church maintains a sign on the property and regularly updates it with quirky religious-themed messages. The church’s most recent tax bill for the property was $2,775.
A few councilors expressed misgivings about granting an exemption but only Councilor William Aiello voted against the measure. “I’m Catholic...and I’d like to support every church but I’m having a hard time with this,” he said.
The church originally requested an exemption under a section of state law that exempts from taxation land that is less than 5 acres in size and is used for religious purposes. But Town Attorney William J. Conley Jr. said his firm determined that a different law applied to this situation. It give municipal legislative bodies authority to grant discretionary exemptions.
Councilor Mario Celico recalled a time when the Westerly Fire Department was denied a request for a property tax exemption for land it owns that is not used actively by the department. Despite his misgivings, Celico voted to grant an exemption to the church, but he predicted the council would soon be considering similar requests.
“This starts down a very slippery slope but I’m not going to be the one to say ‘Bah humbug,’” Celico said. “I’m going to support it but we’re going to be revisiting this as other people come in and want to do the same thing.”
Councilor Jack Carson summarized the church’s request as “a reach, but I will not object.”
Tax Assessor David Thompson said he was originally opposed to granting the church’s request but then moved to a position of “ambivalence.” Thompson sought input from Conley and then asked the council to decide since tax assessors do not have legal authority to grant exemptions on their own, he said.