Exclusive Brethren church's grants cut

Manawatu Standard, New Zealand/August 21, 2010

The secrecy behind the gates of the Exclusive Brethren churches has led to Manawatu District Council taking away some of its religious perks.

This year the council has reduced Feilding Gospel Trust's (Exclusive Brethren) rates grant from 100 per cent - category A - to 50 per cent - category D.

That means it now has to pay more for council services than in the past - which has left its members taken aback and upset.

Under local government rating legislation, places of worship are exempt from paying general rates, but are still charged targeted rates for water and wastewater usage.

Feilding Gospel Trust applied for rates grants for its three Feilding properties - Carthew St, Hobson St, and Makino Rd - which are used by about 130 people each week.

The trust's targeted rates bill for 2010-2011 for all three properties is $15,838.00.

Feilding Gospel trustees Tim Hart and Bruce Currie wrote a letter to the council as they were "baffled" by the change.

"We have owned churches and land in Feilding since early 2003.

"Nothing has changed at all in how the church operates over all the years and we have always been given Category A," their letter said.

Mr Hart chose not to comment any further on the matter.

Not-for-profit community groups in Manawatu can apply for an annual grant from the council to cover a percentage of their targeted rates.

This year $75,000 was up for grabs.

There are five different categories of rates grants - A to E - which range from 100 per cent to 25 per cent.

The categories are determined by how available the facilities or activities are to the public and how much they contribute to the social, cultural, and environmental well-being of the community.

The council's community wellbeing committee decided, based on the rates grant criteria, to change the Gospel Trust's category from an A to a D.

Council community and strategy development officer Tracey Hunt said they had been told the church wasn't freely available to the public.

"The committee made its decision on what it knows now," she said.

"They [the trust] said although they weren't open to the public they were a community group and were open to those who wanted to become a part of their group.

"It isn't us making a judgement call. It's about which criteria they fit into."

The committee's deputy chairman John Salmon said it had not been an easy decision to make but it was "in the best interest of everyone".

Massey University religious studies lecturer Dr Christopher van der Krogt said similar issues had arisen in Australia on whether Exclusive Brethren properties should receive certain subsidies.

Mr van der Krogt said the church believed it was as entitled to receive government and local government subsidies as any other church or community group.

He said the Manawatu region was known to be home to a large population of Exclusive Brethren, but exact numbers were unknown.

Horowhenua District Council finance manager Doug Law said that it offered a rates remission to not-for-profit community groups who could not afford to pay its service charges.

"We would look at each one of its merits and make a judgement.

"We couldn't guarantee it would be approved in every case," he said.

When asked if it would look at a group's availability to the public, Mr Law said it would not necessarily decline a remission application for that reason.

Both Wellington City Council and Palmerston North City Council said they did not offer service charges discounts to community facilities such as churches.

Rangitikei and Tararua district councils did not return calls.

Palmerston North religious studies historian L.J. Lamount said in a letter to the editor that Brethren churches had been closed to the public since the mid 1960s.

"As the Exclusive Brethren own between 90 and 100 church properties in New Zealand many thousands of dollars are being left unrated by local councils.

"Exclusive Brethren own 10 church properties in Palmerston North, Feilding, and Ashhurst."

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.