Most of us who have property pay our property taxes. We don’t like it much. We grouse and groan and twice a year we write a check to the county treasurer. That money pays for our schools, police, fire control, the courts, parks and recreation. . .basically all of the things that make Great Falls a nice place to live.
Churches are exempt from property tax. That is where we stumbled on the curious case of Great Falls Senator Jeremy Trebas and the property at 1300 1st Avenue North. The building is the home of Break Forth Bible Church. But it is owned by a limited liability company, Rearview Mirror LLC. The registered agent for Rearview Mirror LLC is Jeremy Trebas.
According to the MT Department of Revenue, the property at 1300 1st Ave N is classified as a religious institution. So, despite its appraised value of almost $360,000, it is not obligated to pay the amount of property tax most of us pay. The only Break Forth Bible Church registered with the Secretary of State’s office has its principal office in Glendive. It is registered as a non-profit corporation which is the usual practice for churches. BFBC is one church with six locations: Great Falls, Miles City, Glendive, Dickinson, Williston & Minot.
Most people know churches are exempt from taxation (and more than a few of us don’t like that much) but the law is the law. The thing is, it really has to be owned by a church to get the exemption. Montana law (15-6-201 MCA) states that in order for property to be exempt from property tax obligations it has to be, “buildings and furnishings in the buildings that are owned by a church and used for actual religious worship. . .” That means it can’t be used for any other purpose. On May 6th of last year Trebas posted on facebook that he had purchased the building to house his accounting office and that space was also available for meetings. Bottom line, the building is not eligible for the religious property tax exemption.
Turns out Trebas paid property tax of only $267 for the first half of 2022 and owes the same amount for the second half of the year which was due in November. He has failed to notify the Department of Revenue that the property is no longer qualified for the religious exemption. (Don’t worry folks, we have let them know). Just to put this in perspective for our readers, a smaller residential property which appraised for considerably less across the street paid $3,636.08 in property tax last year.
There are two ways to look at this situation. It is possible that Trebas simply didn’t know about the tax status of the building and the bureaucracy has been slow to catch up. Or it is possible Trebas knows very well what he is doing and is simply taking advantage of the situation to cut his tax bill—significantly.
We believe it is the latter for a few reasons. First, Trebas is a CPA and is much more knowledgeable about the ins and outs of tax law than the average citizen. Second, Trebas’ current tennant, the Break Forth Bible Church, which we assume is paying rent to Trebas’ holding company, (Rear View Mirror LLC) is a church. If it owned the building, it would be eligible for the exemption. And certainly having the sign for the church on the front of the building would make most people, including Dept of Revenue employees, assume that the tax exempt status is appropriate. Finally, when Trebas paid the tax bill on the building he had to know that the amount on the bill was extremely low. His own residence, which appraises for far less than the building at 1300 1st Avenue N at $160,000, has an annual tax bill of $1,819.22, over triple the amount of the much larger and much more valuable property he has in his holding company, Rear View Mirror LLC.
This could be a case of bumbling incompetence or a slick trick to avoid paying the property taxes he is obligated to pay. You decide.