The Georgia Trust

EDITORIALS

ATTEMPTS TO TAX MUSEUMS GROW TIRESOME
By Gregory B. Paxton, President & CEO of The Georgia Trust

The following editorial was printed in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution August 9, 2004.

“Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” philosopher George Santayana once said. It is ironic that Savannah, the city whose historic district is the state’s top tourist destination, continues to be challenged by one piece of recent history.

Despite court rulings to the contrary in 1938, 1976, 1991 and 1995, the Chatham County Board of Assessors is again claiming it has the right to tax institutions clearly protected by the courts from taxation. Taxing such economic mainstays of Savannah’s tourism economy might very well drive them out of business. In 2003, tourism employed 200,000 Georgians and was responsible for $25 billion in expenditures and $700 million in State tax revenue. In fact, since the top four tourist destinations in the state are all heritage sites (according to a 2002 study for Georgia Tech’s Tourism and Regional Assistance Centers), this kind of thinking could effectively bankrupt the state’s tourism industry.

Fortunately there is no chance this will happen, because museum properties have already passed, time and time and time and, yes, time again, the clear test established by Georgia’s Supreme Court:

  • The institution must be entirely devoted to charitable pursuits
  • Those charitable pursuits must be for the benefit of the public
  • The use of the property must be entirely devoted to those charitable pursuits.

The Supreme Court has long disagreed with Board Chairman Joe Vestal’s assertion that museums are not tax exempt because they are not “feeding the poor, not housing the poor,” ruling in 1938 that “charity as used in tax exemption statutes, is not restricted to the relief of the sick or indigent, but extends to other forms of philanthropy or public beneficence, such as practical enterprises for the good of humanity, operated at moderate cost to the beneficiaries, or enterprises operated for the general improvement and happiness of mankind.” (Tharpe v. Central Georgia Council, Boy Scouts of America).

The court’s opinion was reinforced in Chatham County in 1976 (Historic Savannah Foundation v. J. Archie Johnson), 1991 (York Rite Bodies of Freemasonry of Savannah v. Board of Equalization of Chatham County), and again in 1995 (Chatham County Board of Tax Assessors v. Southside Communities Fire Protection).

Frankly, we are not only befuddled by the tax assessors’ lack of awareness of history, but also alarmed that they are forgetting the past so quickly—and in, of all places, Chatham County! Forgetting one’s history can easily be remedied by a visit to a history museum—if they haven’t been taxed out of existence.

Due to the clarity of the court cases and the fact that the proposal to tax museums has historically been brought up in only one of the state’s 159 counties, The Georgia Trust sees no need to address the issue on a statewide level. We applaud State Rep. Burke Day (R-Tybee Island) for proactively stepping forward with a legislative alternative, but we believe legislation to clarify this issue is unnecessary, since the solution has already been arrived at judicially. We still believe, as we did in 1995 when Rep. Day proposed similar legislation to quell the previous uprising, that Georgia law already clearly identifies museums as charitable organizations. A costly, time-consuming statewide “solution” to a local issue is simply not required.

Given the large contribution of Georgia museums and other charitable organizations to the state’s economy, The Georgia Trust would strongly support a measure to exempt them from paying sales taxes on admissions income and purchases to implement their mission. Unlike many states, Georgia and most of its communities neither substantially subsidize museums nor provide sales tax exemptions. Exempting them from sales taxes would allow these institutions to grow, enhancing both their charitable efforts and the tourist economy.

Wasting valuable public taxpayer dollars and non-profit museum resources by regularly repeating history is indefensible. Instead, we should focus on how we can reinforce these institutions to better preserve and disseminate our cultural memory.

E-mail your comments on this issue to Alison Tyrer at atyrer@georgiatrust.org.

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