Atop a hill in Jefferson County sits the $20 million headquarters of Joyce Meyer Ministries. The 52-acre complex is the focal point of county Assessor Randy Holman’s toughest tax battle.
For two years, Holman has wanted Meyer’s complex and its $5.7 million in contents on the county’s tax rolls. If Holman wins, Meyer will have to pay $600,000 in annual real estate and personal property taxes that would help pay for schools and for fire and police protection.
But Meyer is standing firm.
“You’re not going to, out of the kindness of your heart, pay over a half million dollars in taxes that you don’t owe,” she said in an interview. “If we’re not tax-exempt, I don’t know who would be.”
Missouri law mandates that religious institutions asking for tax exemptions on real estate must use the property solely for religious purposes — “exclusively for religious worship, for schools and colleges, or for purposes purely charitable and not held for private or corporate profit,” according to Missouri state law.
Holman argues that Meyer’s property does not comply with the law because it is a business. He says it consists of a 158,139-square-foot office building, a 35,020-square-foot distribution center and a 5,000-square-foot automotive maintenance center on Gravois Road in Fenton.
In 2001, as work at the complex was almost finished, Holman’s commercial supervisor strolled inside the buildings and concluded that “the entire operation has the look and feel of a business — the business of selling religion and, specifically, Joyce Meyer religion.”
At the headquarters, Meyer and her staff of 510 produce Meyer’s television program, audiotapes and videotapes, take in money from contributions and the sale of Meyer’s products, answer phone calls from viewers responding to Meyer’s television show and ship out orders.
An armed guard stands outside in a shed at the edge of the headquarters, checking the identification of all employees. He stops members of the public from entering, unless they want to go into a 300-square-foot bookstore to buy Meyer’s books and tapes. Only Meyer’s staff members can attend services in the chapel in the main building.
Meyer argues that the complex is the site from which her television program is sent around the world. Her conclusion: Because her church is her television program, the property houses her church.
Meyer and Tom Winters, her lawyer from Tulsa, Okla., declined to discuss the matter further because Meyer’s appeal of the assessment is before the State Tax Commission.
Holman said that during the decade Meyer ran her ministry out of an office park at 300 Biltmore, just a block from her current headquarters, Holman taxed Meyer as a business — and Meyer paid her taxes, which were $109,000 for the last year there.
And when he sent Meyer the first tax assessment in 2001 on the new headquarters, Holman said, Meyer said nothing. Then, in December 2001, as the tax bill came due, Meyer sued Holman.
Meyer dropped the suit in April, after county lawyers defending Holman demanded a second inspection of the headquarters and financial records for the ministry’s operation.
In the meantime, Meyer went through the normal channels last year and appealed to the county’s tax appeals panel, the Board of Equalization. The board sided with Meyer, saying she is tax-exempt as a church, and removed Meyer’s property from the tax rolls.
The move sparked angry cries from citizens and taxing bodies alike. Schools and fire departments had to trim their budgets and boost their tax levies.
Last summer — months after Holman called the building a business park, Meyer erected a five-story, blue-lighted cross at the headquarters to help designate it as a religious place.
Holman put Meyer’s property back on the tax roll this year. But when Meyer appealed this time, the county’s tax board chose to keep her on the tax rolls. So, Meyer took the matter to the State Tax Commission, which has the final say.
To offset outcries this time around, Meyer responded to the local police department’s plea for help by buying the department a new van. And she gave the cash-strapped Northwest R-1 School District $110,000 for this school year. She foots the bill for the county sheriff’s Christmas party.
Meyer says she’s confident that the commission’s hearing officer will see it her way.
“There are two other ministries right here in the same district that have had to fight at the state level and won, and so there’s already a precedent set,” Meyer said. “I don’t know how we could possibly lose.”