Andrew Wommack Ministries (copy)

Andrew Wommack Ministries, which operates Charis Bible College, can move forward with building student dorms that are not taxed, a change from a 2012 agreement with the city of Woodland Park.

WOODLAND PARK • Following hours of passionate public testimony Thursday night and in what one attorney called "a big win for the constitution," the Woodland Park City Council approved a request by Andrew Wommack Ministries and its Charis Bible College to amend a decade-old agreement with the city that included a condition to develop future student housing as a taxable enterprise. 

The council voted 5-2 to amend the terms the ministry struck with city leaders in a 2012 planned unit-development, or PUD, and allow the Bible college's student housing to be tax-exempt. Mayor Hilary LaBarre, Mayor Pro Tem Kellie Case and Councilmembers Frank Connors, Rusty Neal and Robert Zuluaga were in favor of rescinding the condition. Councilmembers Catherine Nakai and David Ott voted against its repeal. 

Residents and representatives for the ministry presented  arguments on the stipulation's constitutional legality and the ministry's financial and good-faith obligations to the greater Woodland Park and Teller County communities. 

"I hope that the public can understand that we have been put between a rock and a hard place because of a previous council, and that this council does not appreciate where it sits right now," LaBarre told the group of dozens of residents who remained at City Hall late Thursday night. 

Bible college seeks to rescind decade-old agreement with city of Woodland Park

A decade ago, when he was planning the expansive campus for his Bible college and nonprofit religious ministry in the mountain town some 20 miles west of Colorado Springs, Christian evangelist Wommack and the city of Woodland Park agreed to a planned-unit development. The city later inserted a condition into the ordinance approving the PUD that required the ministry to privatize future student housing that would be subject to property tax. 

On Thursday night, with the dorms on the cusp of being built, Wommack's legal representatives said the condition is illegal and unenforceable. They called on the City Council to remove it and allow the ministry to forgo property taxes because, among other reasons, Andrew Wommack Ministries, a 501c(3) nonprofit, which includes Charis Bible College, is a constitutionally tax-exempt entity under state and federal laws. 

City staff, City Attorney Nina Williams and several councilmembers said Thursday the city had no authority to require the condition. 

"The city never had the legal authority to regulate or mandate tax-exempt status" under state and municipal law, Williams said. "Any attempts by the city to enforce this condition in a court of law would likely fail. State law, as well as the Colorado Constitution, are quite clear on the issue, and court interpretation of these provisions are by far favorable to religious-exemption seekers." 

In an interview with The Gazette Friday, Andrew Nussbaum, an attorney with Nussbaum Speir Gleason representing the ministry, said the council's decision was "a big win for the constitution and the rule of law and freedom. The City Council did justice last night when they honored Charis' constitutional right to build and run its student housing property-tax free and according to its tenets." 

Some councilmembers said the state constitution also allows two parties to contract mutually. 

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"I don't like hearing the word that what was done was 'illegal,'" LaBarre said, "because it wasn't illegal. In the constitution, it also allows for two parties to contract mutually together. … Charis and the city mutually contracted on something, and you are going back on that agreement. … Whether we like it or not, now we're stuck." 

Residents who urged the council not to rescind the condition said the ministry was "not paying its fair share" in the community, saying it was draining resources at the cost of taxpaying residents. 

The stipulation meant the private company running the dormitories would have been taxed, not Charis Bible College, resident Joe Fury said. "Now Charis wants to back out of that. I don't understand why taxpayers of Woodland Park, which is a small town, should have to support and subsidize a national organization." 

Northeast Teller County Fire Protection District leaders opposed the revision. They said property taxes from the campus are necessary to add more staff and address a growth in calls for service. 

John Gomes, chairman of the fire protection district board, said almost all the district's $2.65 million annual budget comes from property tax revenue. Without property taxes, the district cannot pay for more staffing or to replace aging fire safety equipment. 

Gomes estimated the fire district is losing about $300,000 a year in property taxes not paid by Charis Bible College or Woodland Park's Downtown Development Authority. 

Others argued the fire district's funding issue is going to take a community effort to solve. They said the city should strongly consider the implications to public safety funding when considering taking in future nonprofits. 

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"What has happened here, by taking on this very, very large nonprofit, we threw our taxable real estate out of balance," said Bill Edie, a former councilmember and deputy district attorney. "... All of a sudden, we bit off too much to take." 

Residents in favor of the ministry's request said Charis, its employees and students largely contribute to the city's economy through property taxes and rent they pay on their homes and via sales tax. 

"I'd argue the property tax base has expanded since Charis got here. To say Charis is a drain … is absolutely not accurate," resident Kyle Garen said. 

The ministry "will be the direct cause" of more than $6.1 million in sales taxes to the city and more than $90 million in income over the next 10 years, Nussbaum said Friday. 

He said the ministry, among other charitable donations it's made to Woodland Park since it relocated there in 2014, was offering a "one-time nonbinding donation" of $250,000 to the city's utilities for water rights to help defray some of the strain on infrastructure. 

Councilmembers said if the donation was received it would be put to good use, but wondered why the money was not offered for use by other services, like fire protection. 

LaBarre and Councilmember David Ott said the donation amount was a fraction of the cost of water shares, which is about $650,000. 

Reporter

Breeanna Jent covers El Paso County government. She previously worked as the editorial assistant for the Pikes Peak Newspapers and joined their sister paper, The Gazette, in 2020.

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