Our Lady of Fatima, Warren at odds over taxes

fatima high school

fatima high schoolIs Our Lady of Fatima still a school? That question lies at the heart of a financial disagreement between the Town of Warren and the Sisters of Saint Dorothy, the religious order which owns the sprawling 360 Market St. property.

In July, the town sent the Sisters a tax bill of $102,104.36, based on the property’s assessed value of $5.47 million. As a school run by a religious order, the property had been tax exempt for decades. But after it closed following the 2011-12 school year, Warren Tax Assessor Cathy Maisano looked at state law and determined that the property, with 44 acres of land and a 73,000-square-foot building, no longer qualified for that exemption.

“Our Lady of Fatima no longer qualified … and (Warren Town Solicitor Anthony) DeSisto agreed with that interpretation,” she said Thursday.

Sisters officials feel differently.

John J. Garrahy, a Providence attorney who represents the religious order, said his interpretation is that although the school is not currently being used, it is still a school and as such deserves exempt status.

“It’s not presently operated, but they (the Sisters) haven’t abandoned that use as a high school. It’s just unfortunate that due to their financial situation they were forced to close the school.”

Ms. Maisano sent the Sisters a courtesy letter in January informing officials of the property’s change in status, before sending out the bill in July. Last week, after Mr. Garrahy requested clarification on the change, the Warren Town Council referred the matter to Mr. DeSisto. Meanwhile, Mr. Garrahy said the Sisters are considering their next step.

One option is to appeal the assessed value of the property with the Town of Warren. That won’t address the tax exempt/non-exempt status, Mr. Garrahy said, but is a start.

Another course of action is to seek a declaratory judgement from Rhode Island Superior Court, asking a judge to determine whether the property should retain its tax exempt status.

“We’re still considering what to do,” Mr. Garrahy said.

The property lies in a residential (R-20) zone and includes one of the largest stretches of privately held undeveloped land in Warren. It has been on the market since last year with an asking price of $8.1 million.

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4 Comments

  1. Nard Glimrod said:

    Sounds to me like Warren is trying to muscle in and set up a situation where they can take the property for unpaid taxes. That’s not fair.

    I would advise the sisters to pay or make a donation to ANY local private school or day care center to have a class there once per year on the condition that one of the sisters is allowed to lead one class. That will restore the school to active “school” status.

    Any payment the sisters make to another school that is less than $102,104.36 would represent a savings to them versus what Warren is demanding.

    Warren should be ashamed of its naked tax grab.

  2. CM said:

    NG’s solution of having one class in the building per year would be dishonest at best, and I believe that any court would see right through it.

    I’m not Catholic or even Christian, but I do have a little sympathy for the Sisters of Saint Dorothy. They are between a rock and a hard place: Either they keep the school open and spend money they don’t have, or they pay a big tax bill to the town. By the way, that tax bill of $102,104 is outrageous. For a working class town, taxes here are ridiculous.

    • Nard Glimrod said:

      CM:

      I am not suggesting that the Sisters do anything dishonest nor anything that would imperil their success in court.

      What I *am* suggesting is that they fight Warren’s narrow, self-serving reading of a statute with their own narrow, self-serving reading of the same statute. Because the Town of Warren is choosing to take a position that the building is no longer a school, I am simply recommending that, rather than spend time and money fighting it out in court, the sisters’ simply read the statute carefully and perform the minimum set of tasks needed to be defined as a school by the statute’s terms.

      If anyone doesn’t like that, they can change the statute but, until they do, the sisters will not have done anything dishonest and they will not have done anything illegal or which would be ruled against them in a court of law.

      If Warren had tried to charge them, say, $5,000, then none of this would matter. Warren’s ridiculous bill for $100K+ is behind my suggestion for the sisters to get creative and fight fire with fire. I would make the same sort of suggestion for any similarly aggrieved party.

      Again, Warren’s ulterior motive simply has to be to squeeze and organization that it perceives to be over a barrel. And if that’s true, it’s not too hard to see that the town’s long-term goal is to take an attractive and valuable property for the cost of taxes that the sisters can’t possibly pay.

      I’ll say it again: The Town of Warren should be ashamed of its naked tax grab.

  3. StillBroke said:

    I worked at a private school a few years ago that was unable to pay it’s mortgage. The bank foreclosed on the property but, wouldn’t evict the school until they had sold the building. The minute the building was not being used as a school, it would go back on the tax roles and the bank didn’t want that.

    Absolutely agree that the taxes in Warren are incredibly high for a community like this.

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