Upset over a pending lawsuit filed against them by the McDuffie County Board of Tax Assessors, a group of Fountain Campground members shared their concerns with county commissioners at a meeting last week.
Although nothing was resolved concerning the civil matter, the group did receive personal support from McDuffie County Commission Chairman Charlie Newton in their quest to remain tax exempt. The group also received support from Commissioners Bill Jopling and Paul McCorkle.
"I support you and hope you can become tax-exempt, personally," Mr. Newton told more than a dozen members of the religious group. "I know Fountain Campground is a place of worship."
Mr. Newton told the group he had received three letters from persons supporting the Fountain Campground group, but still the matter was out of his hands as far as his official duties were concerned.
The commission chairman also told the group that McDuffie County Chief Tax Appraiser Katherine Perry "is an incredibly honest person" and that there was nothing that commissioners could do for them in their official capacity.
Mr. Newton even went as far as to request that County Manager Don Norton contact County Attorney Sammy Fowler about whether anything can be worked out between officials of the Tax Assessors Board and Fountain Campground that would thwart a trip into court. Mr. Newton specifically asked Mr. Norton to inquire about the interpretation of the dispute with Mr. Fowler.
The three-member county tax assessor's board and Mrs. Perry contend that Fountain Campground should no longer have tax-exempt status because they maintain about 70 acres of property that is posted and not open to the public in McDuffie County.
Mrs. Perry said her office staff was aware that the worship group operates a prayer garden on some of that property, but when an inspection of that area was made by field staff that posted signs were discovered. The signs read: "No trespassing - Little River Hunt Club."
Mrs. Perry contends that the worship group "does not qualify for exempt status."
Now it looks as though the civil matter is headed to McDuffie County Superior Court, unless something can be worked out between both parties.
The McDuffie County Tax Assessor's Board filed legal action against Fountain Campground on Jan. 14, 2009, according to civil papers obtained by The McDuffie Mirror.
Mrs. Perry maintains that the group owes taxes for the years 2008 and 2009.
Prior to the civil action being filed, Fountain Campground officials appealed their tax-exempt denial to the McDuffie County Board of Tax Equalization - a separate board from that of the McDuffie County Tax Assessors Board. Members of the Board of Tax Equalization disputed the findings of the Tax Assessors Board - thus contended that the worship group should maintain their tax-exempt status. The Tax Assessors Board, however, feels the opposite.
Several officials of Fountain Campground addressed commissioners during the commission meeting in the county courthouse last Tuesday night. One of them was Ken "Kentucky" Jones.
"We are hoping we don't have to sell off land to defend against a lawsuit," Mr. Jones, a longtime member of the worship group told commissioners. "We're at your mercy to see if there is anything you can do to help us."
Through the years, Mr. Jones explained, Fountain Campground, which was established as a worship site in the early 1800s, has served as a place where weddings and a great number of people have turned their lives over to Jesus Christ.
Fountain Campground is governed by a board of nine trustees from the counties of McDuffie, Warren and Wilkes.
Don Reese told commissioners that the area has offered fine hunting for deer and turkey for many years. Hunters, Mr. Reese said, have donated their time and labor to help oversee that Fountain Campground was not destroyed by vandals and thieves through the years.
"Vandals will completely strip the place," Mr. Jones said.Mr. Reese added, "You've got to separate government from church."
Henry Fluker told commissioners that as a taxpayer of McDuffie County, "I highly object to my tax dollars being spent that way."
Mr. Fluker doesn't want the civil action to go forward. He vowed that if it does, though, "We're going to fight it."
Ronnie Johnson, who serves as chairman of the board of trustees of Fountain Campground, said he opposes the action by the McDuffie County Tax Assessors Board.
"Fountain Campground is not about hunting or about who has the biggest tent. Fountain Campground is a body of Christians coming together as one to learn more about Jesus Christ."