Our regular readers are already familiar with the building Jeremy Trebas bought at 1300 1st Ave. N. The building is currently classified as a church by the Department of Revenue which makes it exempt from most property taxes. As we pointed out in our earlier article, it is owned by a shell company Trebas created which clearly does not qualify as a church for property tax exemptions, despite the fact that Trebas is currently renting the space to a church group. (https://wtf406.com/2023/01/the-curious-case-of-jeremy-trebas-property-taxes/)
Let’s start with the building
There is now more to this story– much more. So, let’s start with the building itself. In 1927 the local congregation of First Church of Christ Scientists announced its intention to build a church at 1300 1st Avenue N. with an auditorium for 450 people for an estimated cost of $40,000! Two and a half years later, the “renaissance” style building was completed and began holding services with a large pipe organ, reading rooms, and Sunday school classrooms. (Looks more like Art Deco style to us, but we’ll go with the Great Falls Tribune.)
Fast forward to almost a century later. The building was sold to Karpeles Manuscript Library Museums. This national organization was founded in 1983 by California real estate magnates David and Marsha Karpeles. David Karpeles’ passion was collecting old manuscripts. With the goal of stimulating interest in learning, especially in children, and to make the collection more accessible, they began acquiring historic buildings and distributing historic documents to those local museums. There are currently 12 such local museums in small to mid-sized cities across the country.
The Karpeles organization was clearly moving forward with plans to open the museum in Great Falls, including hiring local staff and having the museum name added in raised lettering to the stucco finish. But, they abandoned the project and put the building on the market. There were probably numerous reasons for the decision not to proceed with the Great Falls museum. These include the fact that the benefactor, David Karpeles died in January of 2022, the disruption of the pandemic, and potential costs of bringing the historic building ”up to code.” In May of 2022, Jeremy Trebas purchased the building. That’s where this story gets interesting.
But first a bit about building codes
Building codes are about making sure that buildings are safe, accessible and meet community standards and needs. It is common that historic buildings fall behind the various changes in building codes. Owners of these buildings are often not required to update the building, because they have been “grandfathered in.” But, when a building like this changes its purpose, it is common that the new owners are required to bring the building into compliance with the current code.
In this instance, when the Karpeles group purchased the building, it was aware that it would no longer be classified as a religious institution and repairs were going to be required. Specifically, there were some handicapped access issues and importantly the code required an automatic sprinkler system. Automatic sprinkler systems are expensive, because they require a separate line to the water main and monitoring systems to alert occupants if there is a loss of pressure or other malfunction in the water lines.
So, to summarize, the building was put on the market with any prospective buyer understanding the need for costly repairs to meet code requirements, particularly fire safety. The need for costly repairs lowers the value of the building. Enter Senator Jeremy Trebas.
Senate Bill 195 introduced by Jeremy Trebas.
Why would anyone buy a large commercial building with high property taxes because of its size and which needs significant investment to bring it up to code? Well, we already pointed out that the property tax classification of the building has not changed from a church so, thus far, Trebas has not paid much in property tax. Moreover, he rented to a church which could very well be a lame attempt to hang onto subsidized property taxes or, as we have said, it could be that Trebas has simply not gotten around to notifying the Department of Revenue of the change in building use.
But then Trebas introduced Senate Bill 195. This bill exempts his building, and others like it, from the requirement for automatic sprinkler systems. It defines exempt properties as an existing structure that is not over 12,000 total square feet, has an occupancy that is limited to less than 300, and has fewer than three stories above grade. In addition, a community group working on homeless issues in Billings proposed an amendment to help homeless people which has been attached to Trebas’ bill. Despite being opposed by firefighters and fire marshals, the bill has passed out of committee in the Senate.
Bottom line, Trebas is using his seat in the Senate to enrich himself. This whole episode speaks volumes about Trebas’ ethics in government and in business. We wonder if he has thought at all about the previous owners who obviously had to accept a lower price because of needed repairs. Or has he thought of the other parties who were interested in buying the building but didn’t have the title Senator in their hip pocket. Probably not. It seems Jeremy Trebas is only concerned with Jeremy Trebas.