Lake Bluff Church Tax Case Gets State’s Attorney’s Help


Chicago Tribune
July 23 2008

Office’s financial investigators to aid appeal of $80,000 break By
Susan Kuczka | Chicago Tribune reporter 2:29 PM CDT, July 23, 2008

Financial investigators with the Lake County state’s attorney’s
office plan to assist the Village of Lake Bluff in its appeal of a
property-tax exemption the state granted last month to a resident
who contends he turned his lakefront mansion into a church, State’s
Atty. Michael Waller said.

"Clearly the ruling by the Department of Revenue is in error, and
most people consider it to be outrageous," said Waller, who directed
members of his Civil Division to review documents that homeowner George
Michael supplied to officials in support of his tax-break request.

State officials granted Michael an exemption on his annual $80,000
property-tax bill after the Realtor and bank company official presented
affidavits showing he had converted his $3 million North Shore home
into the Armenian Church of Lake Bluff.

Michael, who obtained a pastor’s degree from an online religious site
in 2006, told officials that he converted part of his home into a
church in 2007 so his disabled wife and daughter would not have to
travel to an Armenian church in Chicago the couple previously attended.

In February the Lake County Board of Review refused to grant Michael
the tax exemption, ruling that the use of the property in the exclusive
Shore Acres subdivision along Lake Michigan appeared more consistent
with a residence than a church, board Supervisor Martin Paulson said.

The board’s ruling prompted Michael to take his case to state
officials, whom he gave a copy of his clergy license from the Church of
Spiritual Humanism, the church’s affidavit of organization, copies of
weekly church bulletins and other evidence to support his contention,
said his attorney, Mark Belongia.

Michael also presented a copy of a quitclaim deed from March 2007 that
transferred ownership of the couple’s house to the Armenian Church
of Lake Bluff and an October 2007 bank statement from Citizens Bank &
Trust in Chicago. Michael is vice chairman of the bank, Belongia said.

Following the Revenue Department’s June 24 ruling to grant the
exemption, village officials used the same affidavits that Michael had
presented to the state to fine him $115,000 for allegedly operating a
church without the required zoning permits. Michael notified village
officials July 3 that he would stop hosting Sunday services for about
a dozen church members while he appealed the fine.

Village officials, meanwhile, plan to contest the state’s tax-exemption
decision, citing lost tax revenue. A hearing on the village’s appeal
is scheduled for July 31 at the Revenue Department offices in Chicago,
a department spokesman said.

Local school, park district and library district officials also have
complained that the exemption will harm their budgets. And other
residents have said they are concerned that they might have to cover
the loss.

Waller said he asked his investigators to assist Lake Bluff in its
appeal after he learned about the exemption in a July 17 Chicago
Tribune article.

"The ruling is going to affect other residents who will have to pick
up the difference on their tax bills so I think it’s a matter of
public interest that the county weigh in," he said.