_D5C5045brianby Brian Clarey

Is it just me, or did some of the rest of you find the numbers in Jordan Green’s cover story (“Who owns downtown?”, beginning on page 20) shocking?

I’m not talking about the fact that the Guilford County Jail may be the most expensive building in downtown Greensboro, or that some of the people I thought would be on the list of the biggest property owners were not.

I’m talking about how many entities — wealthy entities, based on their holdings — don’t pay taxes.

Railroads don’t pay taxes, so Southern Railways’ $3.5 million building in downtown Greensboro is tax exempt.

Telecoms don’t pay taxes either, so Southern Bell Telephone & Telegraph Co.’s  $22 million building around the corner gets the same deal, even though the days when a terrestrial telephone was essential for business are long gone.

Most egregious are the churches in both downtown districts.

When churches were granted tax-exempt status in the United States, it was 1894. There were no megachurches. No television ministries. Even the Vatican had less gold in 1894 than it does today.

But now we have some very wealthy churches — even in an area where many do not have enough food to eat. The West Market Street United Methodist Church has more than $11 million worth of property in downtown Greensboro. That’s more than Warren Buffet owns, and almost as much as the YMCA, another tax-exempt religious entity with a building worth $15 million.

Considering that taxes are how we pay for the social safety net, you might think churches would be happy to contribute some of their millions to the less fortunate. Or that they might recognize their exemption from contributing to the common good means that they have a special responsibility to the poor of their city. But I don’t think that’s necessarily how it goes.

In downtown Greensboro alone, more than $60 million in real estate is owned by churches, railroads and telecoms. That’s about $840,000 in property taxes. In the hungriest city in America, that could buy a lot of loaves and fishes.

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