UPDATE: Private Clubs Challenge YMCA Property Tax Exemption

Ada County Commissioners reverse earlier decision; reinstate YMCA's property tax exemption to 100 percent


UPDATE: July 3, 2014 10:30 a.m.

YMCA Tax Exemption Reinstated; Ada County Commissioners Reverse Earlier Action

- Harrison Berry

The Ada County Commissioners' Board of Equalization—which, incidentally, has the same membership as the Ada County Commissioners—has reversed, in a 3-0 vote, its May 7 decision to raise the YMCA's tax exemption rate from 100 percent to 19 percent before a crowd of about 220 mostly-YMCA supporters. The Y is now fully tax-exempt, as it has been since it first came to the Treasure valley 122 years ago.

The issue at hand: Whether—as was argued April 7 by managers of Axiom Fitness and Idaho Athletic Club the YMCA's West Y facilities failed to meet the qualifications required of a tax-exempt organization. Specifically, the percentage of the value of a nonprofit facility used for commercial purposes must not exceed 3 percent. In testimony by Treasure Valley Family YMCA Executive Director Jim Everett, commercial use of those facilities—rehabilitation programs run by Saint Alphonsus and a snack bar—amounted to approximately 1 percent of those facilities.

To boot, Everett argued, the Y's activities in the area have enhanced public access to fitness and other services, especially among children, the disabled, the homeless and other at-risk populations. 

"If you don't like the homeless, you're not going to like the Y," he said.

He further said that the YMCA and for-profit fitness ventures have successfully coexisted in the area for years. Everett cited an instance in which an erroneous media report falsely pitted the nonprofit against Gold's Gym, and a regional executive from Gold's responded to YMCA leadership in an email, which Everett read before the board.

"Our missions are different. ... God Bless the YMCA," the email read.

Three YMCA members delivered testimony to illustrate the impact the Y has had on their lives. First among these was Noail Isho, an Iraqi Catholic who moved to the United States four years ago. When he arrived in the U.S., he couldn't swim. Today, he's a YMCA swim instructor.

"My first experience was jumping in the pool and drowning," he said.

"Almost drowning," someone chimed in to laughter from the crowd.

Y-member Alissa Aldrich has two sons, Noah and Lucas. Lucas suffers from a rare condition, lissencephaly, and suffers from severe mental and physical disabilities. Aldrich said the YMCA encouraged both sons to participate in a youth triathlon taking place in a few weeks using specialized equipment supplied by the YMCA.

"This is so much more than a swim-and-run gym," Aldrich said. "Not only has the Y embraced the boys—it's embraced our whole family."

ORIGINAL STORY: July 2, 2014 6 a.m.

By all accounts, it's an historic challenge.

"Yes, It's been 122 years," Treasure Valley Family YMCA Executive Director Jim Everett told Boise Weekly. "We filed for the tax exemption this year, the same way it has been for 122 years."

Everett, in his 40th year with Y, has seemingly tireless energy, equaled only by his enthusiasm for colleagues, volunteers and, most importantly, a mission to "develop successful youth, engage people in healthy living and instill a commitment to social responsibility." He'll talk to anybody, anywhere about anything to do with the Y. But even he admits that he was flummoxed when managers of Axiom Fitness and the Idaho Athletic Club lowered the boom April 7, urging Ada County commissioners to lower the Y's property tax exemption rate.

"We would like to challenge items 223 and 224," Idaho Athletic Club Chief Financial Officer Shaun Wardle told commissioners, pointing to two requests--one for property, another for facilities--for the West Family YMCA facility on West Discovery Way, one of the Treasure Valley Y's four facilities.

"I don't have any knowledge of what was just said," said a stunned Bob McQuade, the normally-unflappable Ada County assessor, upon hearing of the challenge. Ada County commissioners, who also lord over the county's tax rolls when they pull double duty as the county's Board of Equalization, were caught off-guard as well, rifling through the file of the Y's tax exemption, which has been 100 percent since anyone can remember.

But officials with the Y weren't in the room to defend themselves.

"Honestly, we thought [April 7] would be a run-of-the-mill meeting," said Everett.

Green and Wardle want county officials to particularly focus on what had occurred at the West Y in the past 12 months.

"There has been a material change in the use of the West Y," Wardle later told BW. "If you've ever been in that facility, you'll know the whole right side used to be for kids and teens. They took a lot of that out, relocated it and put in CrossFit and a yoga studio."

Wardle and Green insist that they didn't bring their challenge because Axiom and Idaho Athletic Club are for-profit enterprises competing with the Y's nonprofit efforts.

"No, I'm looking at this as a taxpayer," said Wardle. "We're really not trying to make this an 'us-or-them' situation."

Green, who oversees Axiom's Treasure Valley operations, echoed Wardle.

"We're just concerned taxpaying individuals. We want to make sure it's fair for everyone and nobody is paying more or less than they need to," he told BW. "Are adult fitness services considered charitable? Does that justify having a tax exemption? We don't have a tax exemption for offering those same kinds of services."

And if Axiom's and IAC's challenge wasn't stunning enough to Everett, he was pushed even further back on his heels when county commissioners, on May 7, said they actually agreed with Green and Wardle. Insisting that they were acting on "analysis" from their legal department, commissioners knocked the West Y's property tax exempt status from 100 percent to 19 percent.

By the time YMCA officials formally appealed the drastic reduction, they weren't going to take any chances. This time, they filled the room when county commissioners met yet again on the issue May 29.

"Without sounding too cocksure, I'm certain that we've satisfied our tax exemption," Boise-based attorney Fred Shoemaker, representing the Y, told Ada County commissioners. "We want to make sure that the county we live in has a charity like this."

Shoemaker and Everett were surrounded by Y supporters--parents, children and dozens of staff and volunteers--all there to remind commissioners that the Y provides an endless number of services, many of them for free, to the county's most vulnerable adults and children. The meeting's most emotional moment came when Chad Ward stood to read from a letter he had sent to the Y, following a personal crisis in 2010.

"Never before have I written a thank-you to someone after saving my life," said Ward, reading from a letter, telling the story of how a rare form of melanoma was detected in his body by a visiting physician during a free cancer screening at the Y. Several treatments and biopsies later, Ward said he was there, "to tell you that they saved my life that day."

And Ward took personal exception to the arguments made by Green and Wardle, who stood silently in the back of the room.

"Do other health clubs offer this kind of stuff?" he asked, directing his commentary to Axiom and IAC. "It's upsetting to me ... upsetting that it's some kind of capitalist motive. And I'm a capitalist; but I don't believe in going after the competition like this."

By the time Everett stood to speak, he said it was difficult not to get emotional but explained to county officials that the Y had recently moved child-care services at the West Y to a larger space in order to accommodate more children--at an operating loss. Everett said he "had no idea" why the Y's tax exempt status was being challenged.

"We can speculate, but we think facts were presented here that were not totally accurate," he said.

Commissioner Rick Yzaguirre told Everett that because the Y hadn't been present at previous meetings, county officials couldn't ask for a response. But when the Y, and all of its supporters, showed up May 29, they offered a thick packet of documentation to argue for the reinstatement of a 100 percent tax exemption.

Green insists that he and Wardle will be ready with their own response when county commissioners meet one more time on the matter, on Thursday, July 3.

"We'll definitely have some comments prepared," he told BW. "Again, we're just concerned individuals."