COLUMBUS — A controversial property tax exemption for Masonic lodges and other fraternal organizations was an 11th-hour addition to the state budget.
House Speaker Bill Batchelder, R-Medina, who is a freemason, helped push the tax exemption, which was included as an amendment to House Bill 59 at a House Finance and Appropriations Committee meeting Tuesday.
The Republican-controlled committee approved the bill by a 20-9 party-line vote.
The proposal to exempt fraternal groups from paying property taxes had been proposed at least twice before in the House, but never made it through the Senate, said Mike Dittoe, Batchelder’s spokesman.
Dittoe said Batchelder, who represents Medina County’s House District 69, supported the legislation as a way to offset increases to local property taxes and encourage the fraternal groups to continue to do charitable works.
“Over time, the property tax increases have continued to escalate … but their membership has stayed steady or declined,” Dittoe said.
The proposal is opposed by state auditors, according to Medina County Auditor Mike Kovack, who said such special interest tax breaks just shifts the burden of supporting schools and local governments to other taxpayers.
“The stand of the County Auditor’s Association is that when we give tax breaks like that to one group it affects everyone’s property tax burden,” Kovack said.
Legislative analysts estimated the cost of the tax exemption for Freemasons, Odd Fellows and the Knights of Columbus would cost local governments $4.8 million, according to the Associated Press.
Batchelder’s efforts were supported by the Grand Lodge of Ohio Free and Accepted Masons, which said the fraternal organizations in Ohio donate about $15 million to charity in the state annually.
“H.B. 59 is our greatest chance to receive this well-deserved property tax and enable these fraternal orders to continue their charitable and social work,” the Ohio Masons wrote on their website.
The group also encouraged its members to support “Brother Batchelder” by sending letters in support of the budget for it’s inclusion of the tax exemption.
Batchelder is a member of Medina’s Masonic Lodge 58 on Elmwood Avenue, according to lodge Secretary Richard Metzler.
Metzler said the lodge’s building and property are valued at $381,000, according to Kovack’s office.
The Medina Masonic Lodge pays about $8,500 a year in taxes for its property at 120 N. Elmwood Ave., according to the county auditor’s website.
The building was built in the 1920s and included a ballroom that served as a center for public entertainment, he said. It later transitioned into a movie theater. As movie multiscreen theaters sprang up, the lodge struggled to find other uses for its large space.
Metzler said Lodge 58 has struggled to keep up with the cost of maintaining the building.
“The building has maintenance issues — you couple our taxes with the utility bills and it costs more money than what’s coming in for dues,” he said.
In recent years, the lodge unsuccessfully tried to sell the building.
Metzler said the Masons are interested in finding new uses for the building and the film theater, which faces West Liberty Street and is used by a nonprofit group as a community theater.
Metzler said Lodge 58 is not alone. Other Masonic lodges and fraternal organizations struggle to keep up the old large buildings typically housed on prime real estate near city centers.
“The price to maintain these buildings and pay the taxes is difficult,” he said. “Most of our lodges are in financial trouble right now.”
He said the cost of upkeep and property taxes means less money for the lodge’s philanthropic efforts, which include supporting scholarships for local students.
“The (tax money) could certainly be put to other purposes,” he said.
But the tax break won’t be available to every fraternal organization. The amendment limits the exemption to charitable fraternal organizations operating in the council, lodge or grange system. The organizations also must have a state governing body that has been in operation for at least 100 years in Ohio.
The exemption does not appear to include veterans organizations.
Other provisions in the bill approved Tuesday include dropping an extension on Medicaid proposed by Gov. John Kasich, and requiring public school teachers to endorse abstinence as the only acceptable way to avoid pregnancy.
The full House of Representatives could vote on the amended budget as early as Thursday.
Contact reporter Loren Genson at (330) 721-4063 or firstname.lastname@example.org.