By Mannix Porterfield
Extending the tax-exempt status of the Boy Scouts of America complex in Fayette County when it is used by outside entities needn’t be put to a vote in a Constitutional amendment, a Marshall University professor concluded Tuesday.
In fact, Dr. Calvin Kent told a legislative Finance Subcommittee, such authority already exists with the Legislature and that’s where the question should begin and end.
Last winter, the Senate approved a resolution calling for The Summit Bechtel Family National Scout Reserve at Glen Jean to avoid taxes when its facilities are used by other organizations, but the issue died in the House of Delegates.
Kent said “virtually every lawyer” with whom he consulted agreed that the matter doesn’t require voter approval in the form of an amendment to the Constitution.
“You already have clear legislative authority to do this,” said Kent, a professor at the Marshall College of Business and director of the BB&T Center for the Advancement of American Capitalism.
Besides, he said, putting such an issue before the voters could prove risky.
“I can’t honestly tell you that I see people voting against the Boy Scouts, but stranger things have happened when the electorate has gone to the polls,” Kent said.
Kent acknowledged that he has somewhat of a personal stake in the matter.
“I should also admit to you that I have come to this topic with dirty hands because my oldest grandson is completing his Eagle (badge) and my other two grandsons are in Boy Scouting and all three of them will be there in 2012 for the Jamboree,” he said with a laugh.
“And I’m also an Eagle scout. So, I’m not completely unbiased when it comes to The Summit.”
Kent unveiled results of a survey in which assessors in 35 of the state’s 55 counties responded, reflecting a disparity of attitudes toward various exemptions.
For instance, 55 percent said they would exempt the parking lot of a church if it were rented and proceeds went to support the church.
All indicated they wouldn’t tax a new wing of a non-profit hospital.
Seventy-five percent would be willing to waive taxes for a fraternal group that has a bar, cafe, dance floor and gaming parlor.
Only six assessors would agree to extend tax-exempt status to a non-profit retirement village that requires residents to “buy” their quarters.
Kent said the Legislature needs to pass legislation to clarify the law on providing tax-exempt status of non-profit organizations.
“The Boy Scouts of America is probably the most important stimulus to tourism development in West Virginia history,” the professor told the panel.
On an annual basis, he said, the Fayette County facility will draw some 40,000 visitors, even more when Jamborees are held there.
And that reflects “outside dollars” with the multiplier effect, he said.
Last month, another finance subcommittee toured the Boy Scouts facility to get a better idea of why proponents of the tax-exempt status, such as Sen. Bill Laird, D-Fayette, have been pushing the amendment.
If assessors aren’t on the same page, neither have court decisions been consistent in interpreting tax-exempt status of various entities, Kent said.
“The Legislature needs to pass legislation which would clarify the intent of the exemption and its extent regarding income and property splits,” he added.
— E-mail: mannix @register-herald.com