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February 19, 2004 Edition

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Lawmakers: Must act soon to save
tax exemption for low-income housing

photo of John Huebscher
Eye on the 

John Huebscher 

The waning days of the 2004 legislative session offer a narrow window of opportunity for legislators and the governor to spare tax-exempt housing programs that serve the needy, the elderly, and the disabled from a potentially costly property tax bill.

A strong statement from citizens across the state is needed to assure that this happens.

For years not-for-profit organizations, including diocesan Catholic Charities agencies, have sponsored housing programs for Wisconsin's low-income, elderly, and persons with disabilities. In most instances, those who live in these facilities are people of modest financial means who live on fixed incomes.

Tax-exempt entities

In a November 2003 decision (Columbus Park Housing Corporation vs. City of Kenosha), the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled six to one that state law governing tax exemptions does not extend to low-income housing properties if the tenant of the property is not a tax-exempt entity and if the "primary and dominant purpose" of a rental agreement is not to provide services (such as assisted living), but only to provide housing.

While the justices upheld the constitutionality and the merit of providing housing for the needy, they held that a strict but reasonable interpretation of the statute did not permit granting such facilities tax-exempt status.

As financially strapped municipalities like Kenosha search for new sources of revenue, advocates for the poor fear that many not-for-profit housing projects will be assessed property taxes, leading to rising rents for low-income individuals and families, and potentially the inability to continue existing low-income housing projects or to initiate new ones.

Making law consistent

Although the court decision upheld the tax-exempt status of housing providers who also provide services to their renters, one can expect municipalities to resist efforts to restore tax-exempt status to all the housing programs that enjoyed it before the court ruling. Indeed, some municipalities seem determined to expand the meaning of the ruling.

Some have questioned the tax-exempt status of hospices apparently on the grounds that terminally ill patients in a hospice are in fact rent-paying tenants. Another city has sent notices to owners of all tax-exempt properties, suggesting that the Supreme Court ruling may affect their tax liability.

The only way to protect the neediest in our state is for the legislature to clarify the law to make it consistent with current practice.

If this is not done by the end of the spring legislative session, local tax assessors will be free to place these properties on the tax rolls and the owners of these facilities will incur a tax liability. In all likelihood, the cost of paying property taxes will be passed on to the tenants.

Admittedly, not all residents of some of these apartment units are low income. This is due to the fact that agencies that developed housing for low-income persons have pursued different strategies. Some apartment complexes serve only low-income residents. This has the advantage of assuring that everyone who benefits from government subsidized housing units is needy.

Valuable service

Another strategy is to include some low-income residents in complexes that serve people of various income levels. The rationale for this approach is to avoid segregating people by income and blending people of differing backgrounds in the same residential area.

This is similar to the policy of dispersing low-income housing around a city, as opposed to clustering it in certain neighborhoods.

Housing programs operated by not-for-profits provide the community with a valuable service. If they go under because they or the residents who rely on them can't meet this new tax burden, the cities, towns, and villages in which they are located will lose more than they gain. We stand to lose even more if other types of not-for-profit services are caught in the same web.

It is important that legislators and the governor hear that message in the next couple of weeks.

John Huebscher is executive director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference.

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'Young fogeys':
Father Greeley promotes stereotypes

photo of George Weigel
The Catholic 

George Weigel 

Just a year ago, when it was edited by the late Michael Kelly (who died in Iraq in the first weeks of the war), the Atlantic could publish an article like David Brooks' "Kicking the Secularist Habit," a bracing challenge to the regnant media stereotypes about religious believers and their lives.

Now, alas, the Atlantic has reverted to promoting stereotypes, this time with an assist from someone who ought to know better - Fr. Andrew Greeley.

'Clerical divide'

In the January-February Atlantic, Father Greeley wrote a short piece entitled "Young Fogeys." As its subtitle put it, the article proposed that there was an "unusual clerical divide" in the Catholic Church in America, a divide between "young reactionaries" and "aging radicals."

Father Greeley's data - and Father Greeley is never without "data" - "reveals a striking trend: a generation of conservative young priests is on the rise in the U.S. Church."

Moreover, Father Greeley wrote, "these are newly ordained men who seem in many ways intent on restoring the pre-Vatican II Church, and who, reversing classic generational roles, define themselves in direct opposition to the liberal priests who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s."

It's a sadness that Father Greeley, who's rarely been reluctant to challenge shibboleths and myths, couldn't resist the temptation to stereotyping here.

Shopworn categories

To begin with, Andrew Greeley is far too intelligent to believe that those familiar, shopworn "liberal/conservative" categories shed much light on the reality of the Catholic Church.

If priests ordained since the mid-1980s show a greater disposition to believe that what the Catholic Church teaches to be the truth is, in fact, true, why does that make them "conservative"? I should have thought it made them orthodox. Or faithful. Or honest. Perhaps even admirable.

Then there's that bit about "restoring the pre-Vatican II Church." A man ordained in 1985, 1990, or 1995 is very unlikely to have experienced Going My Way Catholicism - so how can he want to "restore" what he never knew?

It's far more likely that that man had to fight his way through to a vibrant orthodoxy after experiencing priestly defections, liturgical oddities, and contempt for tradition. If he was in a seminary in the early 1980s, he was probably given a hard time by those among his "formators" who thought his quest for authentic Catholicism a form of mental illness.

As I've encountered them, the men Father Greeley's Atlantic article categorizes as "young fogeys" aren't trying to "restore" something; they're trying to build the Church of the new evangelization, in response to the invitation of Pope John Paul II.

Distinct vocation

Father Greeley retails with alarm statistics from Catholic University's Dean Hoge, who "reports that half the newly ordained priests he encountered believe that a priest is fundamentally different from a layperson - that he is literally a man apart."

Father Greeley then notes that "these beliefs are strikingly at odds with those of the predominantly liberal generation of new priests [sociologists] studied in . . . 1970." Those who remember that the latter generation contributed mightily to the greatest exodus from the priesthood since the Reformation may not be so inclined to grieve.

At the same time, what's truly wrongheaded here is the suggestion that young priests convinced of the distinctiveness of their vocation are somehow out-of-sync with Vatican II. That would come as news as to the Council fathers who, in the Council's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, taught that the common priesthood of all the baptized and the ministerial priesthood "differ essentially and not only in degree" [Lumen Gentium 10].

Role of priesthood

Can that teaching about difference breed clericalism? It can, and it has. But in many of the young priests I know, it has led to something quite different - a conviction that the ordained priesthood exists to strengthen and ennoble the laity's vocation to sanctify the world.

Is a man a "reactionary" because he believes his ordination has configured him to Christ in a unique way, or because he believes what the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, or because he believes that he was ordained to pastoral authority rather than to the dubious office of "facilitator"? Please.

Do young priests need the counsel of their more experienced fellow-priests? Undoubtedly. But they're rather unlikely to take it from men who dismiss them as "young fogeys."

George Weigel is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

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Birthday festivities: Celebrating joys of family

photo of Audrey Mettel Fixmer
Grand Mom 

Mettel Fixmer 

Several months ago my kids began planning a big birthday bash for my January birthday. I wondered why they would make such a fuss over an ordinary birthday, my 76th.

When I heard that every one of them was coming home from coast to coast and points in between, I asked if this was sort of a dress rehearsal for my funeral. They didn't think that was funny. Not one bit.

Now, one would think that when all 10 kids come home with their spouses and some grandkids, that would be party enough. But my local daughters, Kris and Elizabeth, created charming invitations announcing Audrey's 76th Birthday Open House and displaying a dinosaur with a line of kids on her back

They had an invitation list of 45 friends and asked me to add more. Kris and Elizabeth are strong women and they continue to amaze me with their management and culinary skills.

Big arrival

The first to arrive on Friday morning was Rob, our journalist and free-lance writer, with his lovely wife Lee. They drove all the way from their home in New Jersey, and somehow managed to find time over the next few days to iron out everyone's computer problems.

Later in the afternoon, Tom, our police commander from Longmont, Colo., and his wife Janet arrived. They ran into our daughter Gretchen in the Denver airport, so they brought her along in their rented car. Gretchen had left her salon and scissors behind this time, but nevertheless found time to gussie up her sisters for the party.

Wisconsin tradition

On Friday night my dear husband treated 14 of us to a fish fry at Jansens Banquet Center because that's the first thing all Wisconsin natives want to do when they come home: "Go out for fish," a habit unique to Wisconsin, I understand. Our daughter Kathi, our occupational therapist, and her husband Curt arrived from Stoughton in time to join us. Our third son Tim, our publisher, and his wife Carson arrived from Iowa in time to share the dessert.

On Saturday morning our fourth son John, the restaurant manager, arrived from Seattle with his beautiful wife Janine. Another local daughter, Patty, and our fifth son Mark with his wife Diane made it on time to join the fun.

With delivery of flowers and balloons, a huge cake, scrumptious goodies from Carson's magic bag, and nonstop laughter, we were ready.

'Pride and joy'

Granddaughters Kristi and Hillary were our greeters at the door, who handed each guest a sheet displaying the baby pictures of all 10 kids entitled, "Audrey's Pride and Joy," inviting them to play the game: "Get the autographs of each 'baby.'"

This was such a thrill for me, to be able to have my friends from church and bridge parties meet each of my kids. I'm guilty of the sin of pride, I guess.

Birthday serenade

The real high point of the day was when all 10 kids gathered at one end of our sunroom, where most guests were seated, to serenade me with a song Kris and her daughter Bridget wrote to the tune of "Seventy Six Trombones." They started out with grandson Dylan playing a chorus on his trumpet. It blew me away!

Seventy-six great years and Aud's going strong

With Bobbie and 10 aging kids right behind.

The winner of years and years of the Golden Ovary

She's the poster child of the church!

Seventy-six great years and there's more to come,

With dozens of chapters left yet to write.

There are more than a thousand pros, so heaven only knows

There could be a novel yet in sight.

There were years of baby cribs and beds and bassinets,

Pillaging, plundering, driving her insane.

Then when things got dull she taught in middle school

Twenty-two years was just not enough.

Now she teaches writing class at MATC,

Driving here, driving there, busier than before.

Wednesday bridge with friends galore

Keeps her sharper than before

A full life is Aud's forever more!

Grand rewards

I've been teased for years about my tendency to "direct" every gala event, probably a habit I picked up from directing so many plays and musicals when I was teaching full time.

I'll say this for my daughters Elizabeth and Kris, though. They may be a psychotherapist and a consultant in health care, but after seeing the way they managed this party, I'd say they could direct our U.S. government and put the politicians to shame.

God is good and wise to give us more kids than anyone in his right mind would plan. I only wish all parents could enjoy such a reward. It makes all the tough times so worthwhile!

"Grandmom" likes hearing from other senior citizens who enjoy aging at P.O. Box 216, Fort Atkinson, WI 53538.

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