By CASEY CROUCHER
The World Peace and Health Organization's intentions were to help improve the city of Amsterdam when it purchased 48 properties at an auction in the summer of 2010.
However, after a year of burglaries at the properties, the group decided to abandon that idea. Three years later, the nonprofit organization has sold back more than half of the parcels.
"We bought the 48 properties out of our good intentions, to help make this area better," WPHO spokeswoman Jennie Wong said. "We unexpectedly were burglarized several times; every house's copper pipes were stolen and also our Buddhist statue was stolen, too, so we suffered from huge damage."
The organization purchased all of the properties for nearly $100,000 and planned to rehabilitate the houses and use them as residences for group members and investors, or sell them back to the city as fully renovated homes.
"We were trying to help with the city's economy," Wong said.
She said the organization spent an additional $1,000 to $3,000 on each house for roof repairs.
"We did the repairs with our own laborers and our own materials," she said. "Each house's roof leakage was eliminated."
She said the organization wanted to utilize the properties but vandalism and taxes prevented them from maintaining them longer than one year.
"We paid taxes to the city for one year; however, the city tax rate evaluation is not what we expected," she said. "[The city] thinks the rate is fair but actually it was a huge amount pushed onto us."
Wong said before any renovations could be done to make all the houses "livable" the city still taxed the group an amount for a fully restored home.
"I think the tax was more than what we paid for originally for some of the properties," WPHO member Joshua Rosenstein said. "When compared to the value of the entire house, the tax was a lot more."
Wong said the group bought a house for $2,000 and the city evaluated it at $40,000.
"The houses weren't livable to be paying those taxes, so we had to let the houses go," she said.
"It wasn't practical to renovate houses and have all the renovations stolen," Rosenstein said.
City Assessor Calvin Cline, however, said the organization knew the assessments of the properties before purchasing.
"The assessments were done before a distressed sale or a foreclosure," Cline said. "It's not an arm's length transaction where property is put on the market and advertised and presented in its best light, it's more like a liquidation conducted by the city for past-due taxes. They bought properties knowing full well what the assessments were and knowing they would have to pay taxes based on those assessments."
Cline said many of the property evaluation values were "lowered significantly," but he thinks the organization originally thought they were tax exempt.
"[WPHO] bought churches, for instance, not from us but from the diocese, and they bought not one but two churches because they're churches and they don't pay taxes on them because they're an exempt organization," he said. "If a religious organization purchases property they sometimes don't have to pay taxes, but it all depends on what exemption they apply for. There are two primary considerations for exemptions for religious purposes, as well as any other mandatory exemptions: The owner must be a qualified tax-exempt entity and the property has to be used in pursuit of that tax-exempt entity. In other words, you could have a church that runs a restaurant, the restaurant is not tax-exempt simply because it's owned by the church, and conversely you could have a church building that's owned by a for-profit company and that's taxable."
He said the organization is considered a tax-exempt entity for the churches it owns and for some of the properties in the city, but to be completely tax-exempt they would have to put all of their properties to a tax-exempt use, which, according to Cline, the group did not do for many of the city properties.
He said the organization is still in possession of 14 city properties.
Wong said the organization also faced neighbor conflicts.
"Even though we tried our best to maintain the properties, the neighbors would throw their trash into our yards from time to time, and we just didn't have the time to be trash handlers," she said.
"I think at one point we were actually fined for having trash on our property that other people had dumped there," Rosenstein added.
During the past three years, the WPHO has sold 45 of the properties to Amsterdam-based Sunlight Recycling Co. for $1 each.
Wong said now that the properties are almost completely taken care of, the organization will start focusing more on promoting themselves and bettering the properties they continue to own.
Their Western Shrine located on Shrine Road in the village of Fultonville is currently undergoing roof repairs.
"We have leakage and weathering we need to repair," Rosenstein said. "We also want to enhance the beauty of our shrine with special painting."
Wong said the repairs are being handled by members of the group.
"They work hard every day they can to help repair our shrine in a timely manner," she said.
She said anyone who wants to see the shrine or the organization's Amsterdam temples -- the Goddess of Mercy Temple on Grove Street and the Five Buddha Temple on East Main Street -- can contact the organization or visit any time.