by William Trollinger
Is all of this really just about fifty cents?
To understand the last few weeks at Ark Encounter one needs to keep in mind three pieces of information:
1. Answers in Genesis (AiG) set up Ark Encounter LLC as a for-profit entity.
2. They did so in order to receive up to $18m in sales tax rebates under Kentucky’s Tourism Development Act. While this tax break was legally challenged – given the Ark’s discriminatory hiring practices and its evangelistic mission – Ark Encounter eventually prevailed (Righting America 233-234.)
3. More important than these rebates, in 2013 the nearby town of Williamstown issued $62m of junk bonds and loaned the proceeds to Ark Encounter. Making this deal even better, over the next thirty years 75% of what the Ark would have paid in property taxes will go to paying off the loan. Williamstown bought the idea that the Ark would spark enormous development in the small town, but this has not been the case, much to the chagrin and anger of local officials.
With this background, here’s a timeline of the recent strange happenings at Ark Encounter:
- April 18: The Williamstown City Council unanimously passes a safety assessment fee ordinance, which puts into place – as of July 1 – a tax of fifty cents on each ticket sold to an entertainment site (Ark Encounter by far the largest such site), the primary purpose being to provide “revenues for safety assessment(s) services (police, fire, EMS)” that come with Williamstown becoming “a tourist and entertainment destination.”
- June 20: The Williamstown City Council is informed that Ark Encounter is making the claim that – because it is a religious site – “they are tax exempt and the Safety Assessment Fee should not apply to them.”
- June 28: Unbeknownst to Williamstown, Ark Encounter LLC sells the land upon which the Ark stands for $10 to Crosswater Canyon, a nonprofit entity also under the aegis of AiG.
- June 29: Williamstown city attorney Jeff Shipp sends a letter to AiG rejecting the argument that the Safety Assessment Fee should not apply to the Ark, pointing out that “Ark Encounter is a for-profit limited-liability company entity that allowed, or permitted, it to be eligible for various development incentives that would not have been available with a nonprofit status.”
- July 18: The Williamstown City Council meets in a tense executive session with Ark Encounter representatives, who propose that the safety assessment fee be reduced. The council says no.
- July 18: Making a bad day worse for AiG, the General Counsel for Kentucky’s Tourism, Arts, and Heritage Cabinet informs Ark Encounter that it has “become aware of a quit claim deed transferring the Ark Project land . . . from Ark Encounter, LLC, a for profit company, to Crosswater Canyon, Inc., a non-profit company.” According to the state of Kentucky, this is a “breach of [the Ark’s] Tourism Development Agreement,” and thus “no further incentives may accrue from sales tax . . . as of the date of transfer of the property, June 28, 2017.”
- July 27: AiG CEO Ken Ham finally issues a public statement. Quoting in part:
There has been an enormous amount of misinformation, misunderstanding, and outright untruths spread by many media, bloggers, and others in regard to the Ark Encounter – specifically, the recent issue concerning the safety tax imposed by the Williamstown city council. . . The Ark Encounter has never stated we would not pay a safety tax. In communicating frequently with the city over the months, we even proposed that a fee be capped at a half million dollars per year . . . [But while] there are unresolved issues, we have agreed to pay the safety tax . . . It’s a complex matter that many people find difficult to understand, but the Ark Encounter operates as a non-profit because it is wholly owned by a non-profit. And it is a religious organization. The Ark Encounter is owned ultimately by Answers in Genesis. There has been much false speculation about this matter, but there were no ulterior motives on our part at all. In fact, to resolve any issues over the recent change in title for the Ark Encounter property, the property has been conveyed back to the Ark Encounter, LLC and the deed has been recorded. [Emphases in original.]
Ham’s statement is very much in keeping with his standard “we are being persecuted by the media” rhetoric. More important, it is remarkably misleading on a number of points:
1. Ham fails to disclose the fact that, in applying for the sales tax rebate, Ark Encounter was represented as a for-profit entity.
2. Ham fails to explain why Ark Encounter sold its land to a non-profit entity, nor does he mention that this sale coincided with Williamstown’s determination to impose a fifty-cent tax.
3. Ham fails to disclose that on July 18 the state of Kentucky informed Ark Encounter that, by now presenting itself as a non-profit, it was in breach of its Tourism Development agreement.
4. Ham fails to disclose that it was three days after Kentucky sent its letter that the Ark Encounter’s land was returned to a for-profit entity.
In all his verbiage Ken Ham fails to rebut what would seem the most obvious explanation of the recent strange happenings at Ark Encounter. That is, in an effort not to pay the fifty-cent tax, AiG/Ark Encounter tried to negate Williamstown’s ability to impose a tax by moving the Ark to non-profit status, but when Kentucky made clear that this would result in the end of the sales tax rebate, AiG/Ark Encounter backed down, returning to for-profit status and accepting Williamstown’s tax.
Is this what AiG understands as Christian behavior?