FORT WORTH -- Without Walls Church and its sister community aid program, The Hope Center, are being evicted by the city because they are delinquent on a tax bill that church and center leaders agreed to pay when they took ownership of the building.
The east side institution owes about $703,000 in taxes, penalties and interest. Officials say they had hoped to work out a deal to pay what is owed but that they haven't been able to come up with the money.
The city of Fort Worth, the Fort Worth school district and Tarrant County are among taxing entities that are owed. The city, which has trusteeship of the building, is asking the ministry and center leaders to move out by Monday.
"At this stage, the church does not own this property, they are not paying rent, they are not paying taxes," said Gerald Pruitt, deputy city attorney. "Everybody recognizes the work that The Hope Center is doing out there. It's just unfortunate. We have a duty to our taxpayers."
Church and center leaders said they don't want to leave the building because it houses education, economic development, employment and food relief programs that help people get out of the cycle of poverty. The leaders said they have been trying to work out a payment plan but that they need more time. They said they also need a contract with the city that outlines how much they need to pay and the deadline so they can enlist the help of foundations and nonprofits that offer grants.
"We're not squatters," center President JoAnn Reyes said. "We're actively involved in trying to resolve this issue."
Reyes said they are committed to helping the poor and don't plan to leave the building.
"If they want us to pack and go, they are going to have to pack us," she said. "We're not packing. We're not moving. The Lord is going to provide."
Taking over debt
Pastor Orlando Reyes and his wife, JoAnn, said they acquired the building in 1996 and turned it into a ministry to serve the poor. County records show they were operating Grace Outreach Ministries when they became entangled in a long, complicated property dispute. The Reyeses fought in court to keep the building because they said volunteers had refurbished it as a church.
In 2004, the Reyeses signed a court agreement that allowed them to keep the building at 3625 E. Loop 820 S, but they also took over the $557,589 debt incurred by the previous owner. City, county and school district officials said that under the agreement the church leaders had to pay in two years.
The largest tax bills were owed to the city and school district -- $208,898.51 and $214,531.28, respectively. When the bill went unpaid and the total debt grew, the building was foreclosed on and the city became its trustee. Now, the estimated $703,000 in debt is the latest amount listed by the county's tax office.
Pruitt said the situation is unfortunate because the original debt wasn't theirs.
"It was their acquisition of property that had taxes due on it," he said.
A payment plan
JoAnn Reyes said they began building The Hope Center because a separate nonprofit would enable them to raise donations to pay the bill.
"We've been here building our organization so that we could get money," JoAnn Reyes said.
The Reyeses said they had hoped the city would find a legal or political route by which the debt could be forgiven.
Pruitt said they already had a route by which to pay "the agreed judgment."
Reyes said the city's payment plans are too costly for a ministry that depends on donations.
"There was just no way we could pay this," she said.
City, county and school district officials said the church has been given many opportunities to pay.
"We have bent over backwards to work with this group," said Besty Price, Tarrant County tax assessor/collector.
School district officials said they were also ready to cooperate.
"We were very willing to enter into any type of payment plan," said Bertha Whatley, the school district's attorney. "They made many promises that those payments would be forthcoming."
Taxes stopped accruing when the building gained a church exemption, but the 1984-1996 taxes were never paid and interest keeps growing. Meanwhile, church and center volunteers have added value to the building through donated items such as computers and the labor of community service workers and program participants. The 2008 proposed appraised value is $3.8 million, according to the Tarrant Appraisal District.
Serving the poor
JoAnn Reyes said The Hope Center empowers the city's poor. She said more than 50,000 people were fed last year. The center's school teaches computer skills and has a youth program aimed at keeping children away from drugs.
"We need to be here," she said.
Gennie Powe, 62, knows the people at Without Walls Church will give her meat, bread and fresh veggies -- donations from wholesalers. After sitting through a church service last week, Powe joined a line of cars driven by people looking for food. Some of the churchgoers also need gas money.
"I need the help," said Powe, who is raising five grandchildren. "Not only that, the prayers help. The church helps. It would be sad to take this away."