SAN ANGELO, TX — Non-profit organizations have their own exclusive revenue streams that private enterprise does not have access to. On the other hand, revenues from the Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone, or TIRZ, is a revenue stream for private enterprises. Therefore TIRZ money need not be directed toward non-profit organizations. After all, non-profit organizations do not contribute tax revenue to TIRZ. This was Mayor Brenda Gunter’s view as she articulated why she was against granting the Gethsemane Missionary Baptist Church $71,000 to improve the exterior facade of its church building at 1720 Martin Luther King Dr.
“I support the church wanting to improve the facility; I do not support using TIRZ money to do it,” Mayor Brenda Gunter said.
Councilman Harry Thomas agreed.
“We have to concentrate on the businesses that give back,” he said.
Councilwoman Lucy Gonzales disagreed. She stated that current policy, as she understood it, allowed non-profit organizations to tap the TIRZ funds.
“We are finally getting north side organizations to apply for money. Also, the south side got north side TIRZ money… Now is the time to allow this (non-profit church to win its TIRZ grant),” she said.
Councilman Larry Miller motioned to deny the TIRZ funds, and Thompson seconded the motion. With that, the mayor and council faced a virtual firestorm of criticism.
TIRZ funds are generated with the property tax levied on the portion of the real estate value assessment that is greater than the accessed value when the TIRZ was established nearly two decades ago and only on property located in a specified area of the city. The San Angelo region has one large TIRZ that stretches from the 29th Street Walmart on the north side to Washington Dr./Avenue D on the south side.
TIRZ denies the county about $600,000 in revenue and the balance of the approximate $1.3 million in annual TIRZ receipts to the City of San Angelo general revenue fund.
Today, Mayor Gunter expanded on her vision for the use of TIRZ funds when she said those funds are best spent on public works projects, such as the renovation of Chadbourne Street that is currently underway, because public works projects benefit all.
On the other hand, TIRZ money is traditionally used to dole out $70,000 to $100,000 grants to private property owners who will use those funds to renovate the facade, add a fire sprinkler system, or build a rear exit to a privately owned building. The reasoning is that it is harder to renovate a historic building than to tear it down and build new. TIRZ grants help maintain the historic character of downtown areas by incentivizing private property owners to restore rather than destroy old buildings.
At issue today was a church, which is also a non-profit organization, had won the approval of the TIRZ board to obtain a grant to fix up its facade. Gunter, Thomas, Thompson, and Miller are against giving TIRZ grants to non-profits because real estate owned by non-profit organizations is tax exempt. Whatever increase in property value those improvements generate are not returned in higher tax revenue to the TIRZ.
Applicant William J. McClendon II, pastor of Gethsemane Missionary Baptist Church on MLK, approached the dais to demand his grant from the TIRZ.
“The doors have been open, and now you want to close the door all of a sudden,” he said. He wanted to know why?
Councilman Thompson said he wants to be consistent in how TIRZ money is granted. Underneath his objection to approving Gethsemane’s cash was that Thompson foresaw a line out the city council chambers of non-profits wanting TIRZ money.
“But improving the church will be a testimony to the other businesses on MLK,” McClendon countered. “Several businesses are not doing anything. We are trying to give a little encouragement. That’s what a church does.”
Craig Meyers, who is also a preacher, mentioned being “holistic, fair, and equitable in all sorts of things.” But, he noted, in order for there to be fairness, one must have an argument or object to compare. He offered up Gunter’s beloved downtown San Angelo and its revival.
“Downtown San Angelo has a lot of non-profit organizations, and every business benefits from the non-profits there,” he said. He mentioned Shannon Health without naming it.
He argued that the city provides the same benefit of these facilities for which the people in Reagan and Blackshear pay taxes.
He then turned to the north side non-profits and highlighted the community benefits they provide.
“Wesley Methodist cares for the homeless. These churches provide services for which the city does not have to pay. These churches are the anchors on almost every block that they occupy and make sure the whole block is improved.”
Then Meyers turned political, steering the council discussion into race relations.
“Historic Blackshear has another aspect of its contributions. (The neighborhood was victimized by) redlining by banks so people won’t sell. When you talk about fairness, giving a break to a neighborhood that really needs it is, politically, a pretty good deal,” he argued. Blackshear is the traditional Black neighborhood of San Angelo. The church on MLK Drive sits in the middle of that neighborhood.
Evelyn Smith is also a minister at the Gethsemane. She said when she inquired about TIRZ money, she was told ‘no’ the first time. Later, she asked if any funds from anywhere were available. She claimed that on August 16, 2022, she learned that NGOs could put in an application for TIRZ funding.
“I was disheartened when that was walked back,” she said. She mentioned that the church has to spend $50,000 to make a bathroom ADA-compliant in accordance with City building codes and they are embarking on a fundraising campaign. She said the church did not ask for any help and was able to raise its own funding.
“We are trying to make a significant impact in San Angelo in the north side area just like on the south side,” she said.
Pastor Theodore Boone, who is known for his fiery sermons, took the podium next. He was more measured than he is on the pulpit. He made a point to mention that TIRZ money is used to fix up taverns and bars on the south side and wondered aloud why there was a bias for sin and not faith in how TIRZ money was handed out.
“We can invest in bars that is not for the benefit of society. How do we have the nerve to turn down a NGO?” he asked.
Boone ended his presentation with a call for a resurrection of the MLK neighborhood. Watch:
“There’s a culture on MLK that needs to be resurrected. There’s a culture on that side of town that needs to be restored. There’s a culture that if not invested in, you will also be a part of the responsibility of not bringing back something that is going to die if the investment is not made,” he said.
The local chapter of the NAACP President Sherley Spears took to the podium to remind the council that although that body had approved building new bathrooms in MLK Park and that the Blackshear neighborhood had raised significant funding to aid the City in building those restrooms a year ago, not a hammer or nail has arrived in the park to begin construction. She added that MLK Drive was repaved only because the City received a federal grant to pay for it.
She hinted that denying TIRZ money for Gethsemane follows a line of disappointment for the MLK corridor from the City.
Councilman Tommy Hiebert remained silent throughout the discussion, which Councilwoman Lucy Gonzales argued in favor of funding the church’s project with TIRZ funds. Ultimately, it was Hiebert to cast the first vote in favor of granting the church the funds. Then one by one, Thomas, Thompson, Miller, and Gunter voted against funding.
Gonzales enthusiastically supported the TIRZ funding. Councilwoman Karen Hesse-Smith voted with Gonzales as a show of solidarity.
In the end, however, the measure failed 4-3.