United Steelworkers Local 6787 argued in an Indianapolis courtroom Friday that its efforts benefit not just its members, but its community -- enough so to justify eliminating most property taxes on its two buildings and shifting that burden on to taxpayers.
Union attorney James Gilday said the local does a lot of community outreach, but the real question as to why it qualifies for the charitable and educational exemptions boils down to, "why unions arose over the last century and a half."
He went on to list gains including adequate wages, shorter work days, improved safety in the work place and civil rights protections.
"All of these things are what the union does at its core," Gilday said.
Indiana Tax Court Judge Martha Blood Wentworth responded during the hour-long exchange, "I think these are great; all good deeds."
But she repeatedly reminded Gilday that he had to convince her the benefits meet the legal definition for the exemptions.
"You need to tell me why it's charitable," she said before taking the case under consideration.
The hearing was just the latest in the union local's efforts to gain 100 percent exemption on its 12,000-square union hall and a lesser exemption on its 22,000-square-foot banquet/meeting center along the west side of Ind. 149, just south of U.S. 20 in Portage. The requests under consideration apply to assessment years 2008 and 2010, but similar requests are in the pipeline for 2012 and 2014.
The union local applied for the exemptions in 2008 and 2010, and the Porter County Property Tax Assessment Board of Appeals determined in the following years that both buildings were 100 percent taxable and the union appealed both to the state.
The state tax board heard appeals on both cases in November 2013 and later upheld the local denials.
Attorney Andrew Grein, who represented the Porter County assessor's office during Friday's hearing, argued via a remote connection in Valparaiso against the exemption request -- saying the union local promotes its members' interests.
"No one is disputing they do good deeds," he said.
But the largest share of what the union local does is negotiate and enforce its labor agreement to serve members, not the public as a whole, Grein said.
The challenge to the steelworkers is in part of a wider effort by Porter County Assessor Jon Snyder and the PTABOA to verify the legality of local tax exemptions.
The pair agreed in January to require a variety of entities holding 22 local properties to show why they should continue receiving tax breaks.