Unhappy with paying property taxes for a dormitory, Wisconsin Lutheran High School has filed a lawsuit against the city of Milwaukee with the hope that a judge will grant them a tax exemption after denial from city officials.
The school has tried this before. In 2017, a judge sided with the city and told Wisconsin Lutheran it had to pay up, as its property didn't meet the state legal standard for exemption: land owned by a religious organization for educational purposes.
School leaders contend that this time is different. Since 2017, they've built a new dorm for international and domestic students, Honey Creek Hall, and they're only seeking the exemption for that building. Previously, they wanted the exemption for buildings that also rented to non-students.
The dorm is on the northeast side of the school, south of Bluemound Road between 84th Street and Honey Creek Parkway. The school building is already tax-exempt because of its educational purpose.
The $9 million dorm was built in 2019 as the school sought to recruit more international students, hosting about 70 international students at the time. These students pay up to $41,300 for housing, schooling and other activities.
The school paid about $106,000 in property taxes for the dorm in 2021, after city officials rejected their new request last year for an exemption. The school then sought a refund, which the Common Council rejected in March.
Now taking the fight to court, the school has pro-bono representation from conservative law firm Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty. They filed their suit in circuit court Wednesday, arguing that the full services of the dormitory make its purpose "educational" and therefore eligible for exemption.
"We are praying that our money can be restored to us so we can use it to further the ministry of our school," said Rev. Ken Fisher, president of Wisconsin Lutheran High School.
In the 2017 case Judge David Borowski found that in considering how the building was actually used, the educational activities in the dorm were "merely incidental" to their primary function as housing.
In its new suit, the school argued the students there use the space for educational activities like studying, tutoring, Bible study, worship and learning English.
The school is seeking reimbursement for its $106,000 tax payment on the dorm, plus interest. The property was last assessed at about $4 million.
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Wisconsin Lutheran High School sues Milwaukee for dorm tax exemption