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Jim Kenyon: Taking Exemption in Dorchester

Dorchester Town Hall has been without water for more than a week, which meant anyone who needed to use the facilities at Thursday’s Selectboard meeting would have been directed outdoors, where a portable toilet was set up in the parking lot.

That will teach the Selectboard in this town of 350 residents to mess with the guy upstairs — or at least his representatives.

Let me explain.

The Dorchester Town Hall is next to the Dorchester Community Church in the town’s historic district. The well that supplies water to the Town Hall is on church property.

On July 24, the Selectboard was notified by the church’s attorney, Peter Decato, of Lebanon, that the well was off limits to the town, effective immediately. If the town continued to use the well, the church would take legal action, Decato warned in his letter.

While cutting off the Town Hall’s water supply might not seem very neighborly on the church’s part, the Selectboard had it coming.

In May, the three-member board voted unanimously not to exempt Dorchester Community Church from property taxes this year. The first half of the $1,500 bill came due a month ago, but the church’s three trustees have refused to pay.

It’s fairly common knowledge that “houses of public worship” are exempt from property taxes in New Hampshire. But Dorchester Selectboard Chairman Sherman Hallock and his colleagues, Arthur Burdette and Maria Weick, apparently decided that Dorchester Community Church doesn’t have a sufficient number of members or hold enough services to merit tax-exempt status.

The church, which dates back to the 1800s, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Judging by the peeling paint on the building’s exterior, I’m guessing the church doesn’t have deep pockets.

For years, Thomas Fraser, a retired anthropology professor, presided over regular Sunday services between Easter and Christmas. Fraser died in 1996. “Since then, we’ve been doing what people did in colonial times when they didn’t have a minister. They ran the services themselves,” said his widow, Grace Fraser, who is the church’s treasurer and organist.

With membership dwindling to fewer than two dozen people, the church has cut back on services to a couple of times a year — at Easter and either Thanksgiving or Christmas. “Like other congregations across the country, we’re faced with having not as many people going to church these days,” said Patricia Franz, who serves on the church’s three-member board of trustees with Fraser. “Some members have died off. Others have moved away.”

The Selectboard has been less than sympathetic to the church’s plight.

In 2013, the board ruled the church had missed the filing deadline for a property tax exemption. Never mind that the church hadn’t been asked to file the paperwork in years. “Things weren’t being done (on the town’s part) as they should have been,” acknowledged Hallock, who was elected in 2011.

The church paid the $1,500 tax bill and made sure to file its 2014 exemption application on time. Still the request was denied. The other church in town, Cheever Chapel, was granted an exemption, after providing the Selectboard with its lease agreement. The United Pentecostal Church holds regular Sunday services at the chapel.

Since the number of Sunday services at Dorchester Community Church seems to be a sticking point for the Selectboard, I called the Department of Revenue Administration, which administers state tax laws. Stephan Hamilton, director of the department’s municipal and property division, didn’t seem impressed with the town’s argument. “My recollection is that there isn’t any such number of actual services that a church is required to provide,” he said.

As Decato pointed out in a May 19 letter to the Selectboard, Dorchester Community Church is listed on the town website under “area churches.” Former selectman John Franz, the spouse of a church trustee, told me that “we used to all get along around here. For some reason, we don’t get along so well any more.”

The three Selectboard members each moved to town in the last 15 years, which makes them relative newcomers. “Flatlanders,” said Hallock, with a smile.

“We are not just going to stamp a form because that’s the way it’s always been done,” said Burdette.

On Wednesday, the board held a closed-door conference call with its lawyer at the town office building (which doesn’t rely on the church well for its water supply). Later, Hallock told me the board was preparing to vote again on the church’s tax status. But the vote didn’t come Thursday. The board was too busy putting together a list of questions for church trustees. For starters, the board wants to “know who are the members of the church”?

Here’s my question: Did the Dorchester Selectboard ever hear of the First Amendment? Where residents choose to worship is not any town’s business.

Burdette, a retired New York cop who moved to town in 2001, also wants the name of the church’s pastor. When Burdette attends church, “I want a minister,” he said during Thursday’s deliberations. “I don’t want to listen to two residents.” After the meeting, I asked Burdette, who has been on the board since 2010, why that matters. “I grew up Roman Catholic. I’m used to priests and nuns.”

The Selectboard isn’t “picking on the church,” said Hallock. As part of a property revaluation effort, the Selectboard is “scrutinizing every property in town that is getting an exemption.”

But what about the well?

“We’re willing to compromise,” Patricia Franz told me.

The board, however, isn’t in the mood. At Thursday’s meeting, it voted to spend $1,500 to dig a new well on town property.

I hope a lightning bolt doesn’t strike.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.