Property tax law could force end to Sausage Fest

The Everett Sausage Festival has lured crowds to Our Lady of Perpetual Help’s parish grounds for 36 years. With sausages, sauerkraut, carnival rides, music and a beer garden, the event raises money for Catholic education.

Despite its popularity, it’s not clear that there will be a 37th annual Sausage Fest this October. Concerns about an existing state law and the property-tax exemption for nonprofit religious groups, have put planning for the 2013 festival on hold.

On Monday, several Sausage Festival supporters went to Olympia to testify at a public hearing before the House Committee on Finance. They are pushing for passage of House Bill 1215, a proposal meant to put the sausage festival and others like it on sound legal ground.

“It supports a school, and it’s a benefit to the entire community,” Greg Magnoni, spokesman for the Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle, said Thursday of the Everett festival. “It would be a shame if we couldn’t come up with a solution.”

The obscure issue that put a wrinkle in festival planning can be found in the Washington Administrative Code. It’s related to property tax exemptions for churches.

The code says use of tax-exempt property for fundraising activities does not subject the property to taxation. Yet if any entity profits from the event, the code says, 51 percent or more of that profit must be given to the nonprofit group holding the activity.

The Everett Sausage Festival is largely organized and staffed by volunteers from Immaculate Conception &Our Lady of Perpetual Help School, which benefits from the event. But the festival’s carnival rides, music entertainers and some craft vendors, all of which help draw crowds, also profit.

“I don’t think it’s an issue that’s ever been enforced,” said Rep. Mike Sells, who said he was contacted by festival supporters after they learned of the issue. “And I don’t think the law was written originally with those kinds of fairs in mind. Nobody has gone after them.”

Sells and Rep. John McCoy, both 38th District Democrats who represent the Everett area, along with Rep. Cindy Ryu, a 32nd District Democrat, are sponsors of House Bill 1215.

Sells said the existing law was previously changed to allow farmers markets on tax-exempt property. And he believes the intent of the original law was to keep churches from allowing businesses such as used-car lots on their property.

The new bill, which would amend existing law, addresses the problem of profit-making businesses at a fundraiser on church property. It allows “use of the property for pecuniary gain or business activities, if such use does not exceed fifteen days each assessment year.” It also says rental income must be “reasonable” and devoted to the property’s maintenance or improvements.

Magnoni said it was the Archdiocese of Seattle, which oversees all Catholic churches in Western Washington, that brought the issue to the attention of Sausage Festival organizers.

“There was a letter sent out to the board,” said Dave Hensen, whose parents Esther and Richard Hensen were among the festival’s founders. Hensen testified Monday, along with Greg Shaffer and Wally Badley, members of the Sausage Festival board.

It was the Our Lady of Perpetual Help Booster Club that started the festival to support the old Our Lady of Perpetual Help School. That school combined with north Everett’s other Catholic school to become what’s now Immaculate Conception &Our Lady of Perpetual Help School. Hensen said the 2012 festival raised about $88,000 for the school.

Shaffer said he testified not as a representative of the school or church, but for the community. “We’re going to lose the largest festival here in Everett since Salty Sea Days,” Shaffer said. “We need more community support. We need to have people speak up to get it out of committee.”

Sells said the bill has several weeks to make it out of committee to the House floor.

The Everett festival is far from the only one affected. A sausage festival at St. Joseph Catholic School in Vancouver, Wash., draws crowds, and there are several big festivals on church grounds in Seattle.

Sister Sharon Park, a lobbyist for the archdiocese in Olympia, is informed on the issue, Magnoni said. Magnoni said the archdiocese is “generally supportive” of the bill that could save Everett’s Sausage Festival.

Sells said the festival reaches beyond helping one Catholic school. “I’m not Catholic. I’m not part of that community, but it’s an institution,” he said.

I am Catholic, and for many years had children at Immaculate Conception school. I agree with Sells. The Sausage Festival is an institution.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460, muhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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