Kansas Churches File Lawsuit Over 'Driveway Fee'

Two Kansas churches sued the city for imposing a tax-like fee that levies charges on the number of trips attendees make to their places of worship.

First Baptist Church of Mission and the Archdiocese of Kansas City are both suing Mission, Kansas, to repeal the property tax attorneys say is disguised as a "driveway fee" to evade having to grant exemptions.

The "driveway fee" would cost the institutions over $1,000 in the coming year. The city council asserts that the fee is not a tax. However, others disagree.

"No one should be taxing church attendance, but that's what this tax does: it punishes churches based on their attendance," said Alliance Defense Fund Senior Legal Counsel Erik Stanley.

ADF will be representing both parties in court.

According to court documents, the Mission City Council established the Transportation Utility Fee in August. TUF charges properties based on the number of actual or estimated vehicle trips each property generates over a period of time.

Mission Mayor Laura McConnell says the goal of the fee is to address the city's infrastructure problem without over taxing its budget.

"One of the reasons we like the Transportation Utility Fee is because it creates a separate pool of money that would be outside our general budget and it would be something that would be specific and it would be something identifiable and [would not] be something … co-mingled into our budget," she shared at an August town hall meeting.

She also asserted the fee was fair because it would be spread out among all of the various entities that utilize Mission's roads, including government agencies.

Churches are required to pay the fees despite the institutions' non-profit designation because they are considered "developed properties." Developed properties are defined as real property where improvements such as a parking lot, building or landscaping exist or were constructed.

First Baptist Church of Mission has church property and a parsonage within the city's limits. Under this law, it faces fees of nearly $1,000 for the upcoming year. St. Pius X Catholic Church, a member of the Archdiocese of Kansas City, will likely face $1,700 in fees.

Stanley says the tax is "outrageous" and sneaky. The wording undermines the church's tax-exempt status, he explained.

"The government should not attempt to disguise taxes as 'fees' in order to eliminate property tax exemptions, when that money could be better spent by churches in caring for the poor," Stanley proclaimed.

Mission residents and business owners have also expressed outrage over not being allowed to vote on the fees.

 "You guys just tried to ram this through as opposed to trying to bring it in a vote to the general public. Let us make our own decisions," a meeting attendee expressed.

Mayor McConnell later explained that because the TUF is classified as a fee instead of a sales tax, the council approved the measure without bringing it to the people as a voter referendum.

The Alliance Defense Fund filed their lawsuit on Monday. It expects to argue the case in district court soon. Similar fees were overturned in Idaho and Florida supreme courts after judges ruled them to be taxes. Stanley is confident of a similar outcome in this case.