I love Chattanooga, and I love nonprofits. I live in the city, work in the city and plan to do so for decades to come. That's why I based my marketing agency, which works with nonprofits, in Chattanooga. Finally, I also love our downtown — but I believe it needs improvement.
Most of my career has been devoted to nonprofits. I spend my days meeting with and working on behalf of nonprofits. I know their pain points, their thought processes, their biggest fears and greatest hopes. I understand Chattanooga and I understand nonprofits, which is why I've been bothered recently by the decision to "tax" nonprofits.
Today, if you are a nonprofit with property downtown, you have to pay a legally binding fee. It doesn't matter if you are a small church or a large museum. You are treated the same. This is wrong. According to Webster's dictionary, a tax is "a charge usually of money imposed by authority on persons or property for public purposes." The financial assessment on nonprofits downtown is a tax. The Downtown Chattanooga Alliance (DTA) likes to refer to it as an assessment, but it functions no differently than a tax.
Here are three reasons why we need Mayor Tim Kelly and the city council to show leadership and courage and compel the Downtown Chattanooga Alliance to relieve nonprofits of this tax.
1) It takes donor money away from organizations. The people who put money in the offering plate at their church or donate to organizations like United Way are not giving to support the commercial viability of downtown (as worthy as that mission is). They are giving to support the organization they love and further the work they do. The DTA is redistributing charitable money to be used for purposes for which it was never intended.
2) It disrespects the work of nonprofits. We all want to see downtown become a safe, clean, and inviting place. A for-profit property owner is motivated differently than a church or charity. The DTA is an initiative spearheaded by commercial real estate owners like Berry Hunt, Defoors, KPH, Fidelity Trust and others. They are rightfully concerned about attracting tenants and improving their property value.
The churches and charities have been there longer than these property owners and have been working to improve downtown through their own funds for years. Now, they are being treated as though their selfless service is insufficient. The DTA tax is a slap in the face.
3) It creates a terrifying precedent. If the city can tax churches and charities downtown, there's nothing stopping them from creating a special district in your part of town and doing the same to your favorite church or charity. They can declare a "special district" and then force soup kitchens to financially support it like any other business. I'm not sure what could be more frightening.
Chattanooga needs to stop taxing nonprofits. Mayor Kelly was not the mayor when this process was started, but he can end it. We need commercial property owners downtown to advocate for their nonprofit neighbors who are essential to our city. We need community members who've generously donated to these nonprofits to insist their donations be used for the purposes intended. We need citizens of Chattanooga to ask the DTA to find alternative funding solutions other than charities.
If you surveyed voters across our great city, I'm confident they would overwhelmingly agree on two things: Downtown needs to be improved, and charities shouldn't be forced to pay for it. We can improve downtown without taking money out of offering plates. We are better than this.
Andy Jones lives in Chattanooga and is the founder of Roundtree, a marketing agency serving nonprofits around the country.