Tax bill mystifies cultural center

TribTown • After being exempt 30 years, nonprofit hit with $18,000 levy; county mum

The Northwest Neighborhood Cultural Center, at the corner of Northwest 18th Avenue and Everett Street, has survived a number of threats to its existence in its 30 years.

Two years ago, the center - housed in a historic building constructed in 1909 as a church - fought off a bid by its primary tenant, the Northwest Children's Theater, to win a community vote to take over the entire community-owned building.

But the latest threat comes in a more ominous form - the tax man.

For 30 years, the nonprofit center has enjoyed tax-exempt status. But last fall, the Multnomah County Assessment and Taxation Department sent the center's all-volunteer board a 2007 property tax bill for $18,000.

Board members say the nonprofit center, whose building is in great need of repair, has no money with which to pay the bill. And, board members say, they have no idea why the county suddenly has decided to stop giving the center tax-exempt status.

The county's position, according to county public information officer Shawn Cunningham, is that the center is not meeting the standard for being a fully tax-exempt property.

But Cunningham isn't offering any explanation beyond that, citing 'pending litigation' as the reason, referring to an appeal of the bill the center's board has filed in Oregon tax court.

Through the county tax bill, the center was notified that it was 44 percent taxable. Board president Ike Bay said board members say they have no idea how the county came up with that figure, and that county officials have refused to explain the tax bill.

The center's two main tenants, the children's theater and the Portland Symphonic Girlchoir, are registered nonprofits.

The Independence Network, which helps the mentally challenged, and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, which since has moved out, rent small offices that Bay said come to less than 2 percent of the center's floor space. They also are nonprofits, though not with tax-deductible status.

Bay said the group has written county Chairman Ted Wheeler, who has not responded. And county appraisers, with whom he met more than a month ago, also wouldn't explain, Bay said.

If the appraisal stands, Bay said, the board will hold out as long as it can - he guesses three years - and then sell the historic building to pay the bill.

But other options still might exist. The board was presented with an opportunity to bring in some much-needed cash last summer, when a developer offered about $250,000 for unused development rights attached to the property.

The center's board rejected that offer.