To the Rev. Bud V. Crisp, a fight to keep his church from paying a fire protection assessment is the same as a fight for the cross. "We're going to stop it now. We're ready to die for it. This is strong," Crisp said.
Crisp's church, Westside Independent Baptist Church, is one of 12 churches in the Northwest Hernando Fire Protection District that face dramatically higher fire protection fees this year. For example, the assessment for the Christian Church in the Wildwood went from $174 to $984, and for Centralia New Life Baptist, it increased from $50 to $134.
Crisp not only is complaining about the increase. He said any assessment is really a tax. As such, it is unlawful, because the separation of church and state guarantees churches exemption from taxation, he said. "Our Constitution tells us that."
Crisp and other religious leaders from the fire district have complained to the County Commission about the increase. "There's supposed to be a separation of church and state," said John Campbell, pastor of the Christian Church in the Wildwood. Campbell isn't opposed to the assessment in principle, but is angry about the higher assessment.
Dave Sloan, manager of emergency services for the county, gave a simple reason for the increase. He said that before this year, Westside Baptist and 11 other churches in the district had been classified incorrectly as residences. The district covers most of the northwest third of the county, Sloan said.
The county ordinance requires that churches be classified as commercial property, Sloan said. These churches had been overlooked, partly because all are small churches, he said.
"We haven't changed any rates," said Henry Ledbetter, County Commission chairman.
The churches had been taxed $50 per church building, which is the
residential rate. Their assessment as commercial property is 10 cents per square foot.
Crisp pointed out that the churches in the county's other professional fire districts, Brooksville and Spring Hill, do not pay anything for fire protection.
Les Samples, county property appraiser, said that is because in Spring Hill and Brooksville, fire protection is paid for with property tax money. Churches do not pay property tax.
The fee in the Northwest Hernando Fire Protection District is considered an assessment "because it applies only to a certain part of the county" and property owners pay it for a single service, Ledbetter said.
But Crisp says it is a tax, and the only reason he didn't fight it earlier is because it was so small he didn't notice.
He admits that some churches abuse laws exempting them from taxes.
"There are some that have turned the house of worship into a den of thieves," he said. And these churches should be taxed, he said.
But Westside "is God's home. ... There is no hospital, no school, no bookstore, not anything."
Ledbetter said that the assessment issue will be discussed, though he is not sure how soon any action can be taken. "I think there is some sentiment on the board to take a look at that and maybe put churches and not-for-profit organizations in a separate category."