By Steven Ipson
(August 24) There is an ongoing problem between the Chaffey Communities Cultural Center (which does business as the Cooper Regional History Museum) and the county board of supervisors as well as the county assessor. As an active member of the cultural center’s board of trustees for the past five years plus, I would like to present the history that has taken place and request the public’s support for this community resource. The Chaf-fey Communities Cultural Center was established in 1965 and is dedicated to preserving and interpreting the history and cultural legacy of the communities of Upland, Ontario, Montclair, Mt. Baldy, Rancho Cucamonga and San Antonio Heights.
The groundwork for the Chaffey Communities Cultural Center (CCCC) was laid in 1964 by a number of civic leaders who joined together to preserve the St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, built in 1911 and located at Euclid and F Street. It was being replaced by a larger church being built on 16th Street just east of Euclid Avenue. The committee accepted the city of Upland’s offer to lease a five acre portion of Pioneer Park at $1 a year to serve as the new home to historic St Mark’s Church. In 1966, the church was cut into three sections and moved to its present location on 18th Street. In June of 1967, the CCCC held a grand opening and the church was opened to the public. The plans were to feature a history museum, art gallery, amphitheater, sculpture garden and theater.
To enhance the beauty of the church, the public became involved through residents, businesses, local organizations and service groups. There was construction of additional buildings, installation of landscaping, and the planting of a two-acre citrus grove, harking back to the origins of Upland.
Tragedy struck in 1987 as a fire destroyed a significant portion of the church and the historical artifacts collection stored there. A restoration program ensued and the cultural center transformed itself. Much repair work was done and chairs and new carpeting were added, which transformed the structure into a modern auditorium. With the addition of a new entrance, walkways, signage lighting and shrubbery, the building became more attractive and re-opened in April of 1990 for performances, lectures and concerts. This venue continued through the end of the 20th Century and continues today. In addition, weddings and funerals were added so residents could hold these important ceremonies in a landmark location. All of these events are hosted for a minimal donation, because the cultural center’s mission is to serve our communities, not generate profits. Over the years, our income from the use of the church building has just covered our maintenance and other operating expenses. The church and the Ada Cooper Museum, located downtown, are both staffed by volunteers and a director who is paid part time.
Many of the larger artifacts that are displayed in our shed at the back of the 18th Street property were exhibited to the many school children that came for yearly visits and received a better understanding of the early citrus industries and how the citrus groves looked when they dominated the area for over 60 years.
In 2005, the city of Upland entered into a business transaction at our 18th Street Property that spawned our dispute with the county assessor. The city sold the property consisting of Pioneer Park, including the portion that had been leased to Chaffey Communities Cultural Center to a builder, who deeded back 1.25 acres to CCCC, which consisted of the church, a small garage, which holds historical artifacts and documents, a shed to hold the larger artifacts, and a caretaker’s house that is rented out to provide security and minor maintenance.
In 2009, we were advised by the county assessor that the center was responsible for property tax in the amount of approximately $14,000 per year. We explained that the center was a 501(c)3 non-profit organization and, thus, was exempt from property taxes. The definition of a non-profit organization is one that uses surplus revenues to achieve its goals rather then distribute them as profit or dividends and that is precisely the kind of operation we have. During the dialog we had with the assessor’s office, we were advised by the assessor’s staff that we would qualify if we made specific changes. We first revised our articles of incorporation and had them approved by the Secretary of State of California and then notified the assessor’s office of the changes. The Secretary of State, in addition, issued us a certificate of welfare from the Board of Equalization, which the assessor’s office stated qualified us as eligible for a 100% exemption. We then responded to their request that we modify the appearance of the 18th Street location by distributing our farm implements over the entire property with the implied statement that this adjustment would qualify us. Following this, we provided photos of the 18th Street location to the assessor’s office to confirm that we had complied with their request. After taking all these steps, we were confident that we had satisfied the county assessor that we were a non-profit institution and, therefore, would not be liable for property tax.
The assessor’s office re-evaluated our property and allowed CCCC a 19% discount against our property tax. This lowered our property tax to approximately $10,400 a year. When questioned about the amount, we were told that we employed companies for profit and that disqualified us. We questioned the irreasoning behind this decision. There are no offices on the property. People conducting weddings and funerals contact our president by phone to arrange for time slots for their ceremonies. They make a small contribution to utilize the historic 18th Street Church. The monies garnered from these ceremonies are used exclusively for our standard operating costs (insurance, gas, electricity, cleanup, security, and phone). There is no connection between any of the organizations or individuals that utilize our facilities and the Chaffey Communities Cultural Center. Facing a property tax amount that would exhaust our limited resources, and force us to close our doors within five years, we sought legal help. Research showed that similar non-profit organizations had encountered the same type of problem, but they had the resources to take their battle to court. In each case, these organizations, which closely resemble the Chaffey Communities Cultural Center, demonstrated that the revenues they received were used to further the charitable purposes of the associations and did not inure to private benefit.
We elected to take our appeal to the county board of supervisors, feeling a review of these legal precedents and a better understanding of how we operated out of the 18th Street location would result in a favorable decision by the supervisors. We met with and thoroughly briefed our two supervisors, Janice Rutherford, representing the 18th Street location, and Gary Ovitt representing our downtown Upland location. We were informed that our appeal was on the agenda for the May meeting.
Prior to the meeting with the board of supervisors, we heard comments from knowledgeable people that, “You won’t get one government agency to overrule another government agency,” and “The county needs the money more than you.” Nevertheless, we went into the meeting confident we would get a fair hearing and would prevail based upon our operation and previous court decisions. We utilize our courtyard in downtown Upland for the same kind of events for companies and organizations that donate a fee, and we have 100% property tax exemption there. Other 501(c)3 organizations operate in the same manner we do. Our president, Dave Stevens, our lawyer Sam Crowe and I addressed the board of supervisors. Unfortunately, both of the supervisors representing us did not appear at the board meeting and did not have the item postponed. The remaining three supervisors present voted to deny our appeal to give the entire property tax exempt status. Instead they voted to enforce the county assessor’s decision to apply a property tax to the cultural center on that portion of the property that does not have an exemption.
We continue to accommodate residents’ requests to tour the 18th Street Church and grounds, see the artifacts and to utilize our upgraded garage areas as a research area, focusing on local history. The library preserves books and maps of the area, clipping files, scrap books, historic home research tools, and a growing genealogy and family history. I personally have taken a number of guests through the church so they can appreciate the beauty and workmanship of a 100-year-old historic structure.
Faced with a property tax bill of $10,400 a year, and combined with a struggling economy which restricts our fundraising ability, the prospect of closing our doors within the next five years is steadily becoming a reality. We believe that the Chaffey Communities Cultural Center not only preserves the history of the local area, but also educates our local school children about roots in the community in which they live, and introduces both longtime and new residents to the unique and rich history of the valley. You are invited to come down to the Cooper Museum at 217 East ‘A” Street (across from the downtown Upland Metrolink) and see the museum. Admission is free and it is open Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. till 5 p.m. and can be reached at (909) 982-8010. If you believe that we are genuinely a non-profit organization dedicated to serving the community, that we are not trying to circumvent the law but rather apply the law in a fair and consistent manner, you are invited to pick up a postcard preaddressed to your county supervisor. This postcard will voice your support for our position that the 18th Street property should be totally tax exempt. This postcard only requires your signature and a stamp to let our supervisors know how the community feels. If you are an organization, group, school, church or other entity and want to get your people involved, let us know and we will supply you with the amount of postcards required. If our supervisors hear from enough of our citizens asking them to reconsider their position, the community will come out a winner.
You can also view us at our website at www.coopermuseum.org. Our 18 Street property location is open from 10 a.m. till 2 p.m. on Thursdays and upon request.
Steven Ipson is the secretary for the Board of Trustees of the Chaffey Communities Cultural Center.