Answers in Genesis has just released a statement regarding the Williamstown “Safety Fee” and the changing of statuses from non-profit to for-profit and back to non-profit. It’s the first official statement we’ve heard outside of short responses to reporters and random rants on Facebook.
Before we get into it, let’s go over a bit of relevant background first.
The city of Williamstown (pop. 4,000) needs money to pay for safety equipment like fire trucks and police cars. Ark Encounter is a huge attraction relative to the size of the town, so city officials need to make sure they can handle any emergencies that might befall citizens or tourists. They recently instituted a $0.50-per-ticket charge to all ticket-taking attractions in the community, which also means Ark Encounter would be paying the bulk of the budgeted fee ($700,000 out of an estimated $715,000).
Ken Ham didn’t want to pay that fee at first, so his team offered to pay up to $350,000. The city said no. Ham countered with $500,000. The city said no. Essentially, their argument was that Ark Encounter was bringing in all these people (and making money off of them) but the city was on the hook for taking care of them in case of emergencies, therefore it made sense for Ark Encounter to cover the bill based on attendance at the Park. Putting a cap on how much Ham would give defeated the whole purpose of the safety fee.
So Ham countered by selling the entire Ark for $10 to a non-profit company he owned, turning it into a church. He figured that, by doing this, he would be exempt from paying anything to the city.
That plan backfired. The state of Kentucky suspended the tourism-related tax break (worth over $18 million over the next decade) that Ham had been relying on because he had violated the terms of their deal when he turned the Ark into a non-profit. Yesterday, we learned that Ham had sold the Ark back to its original company, making it a for-profit attraction once again, and presumably helping him get back into the good graces of state officials.
That brings us to the press release written by Mark Looy, the Chief Compliance Officer for Answers in Genesis and Ark Encounter.
Looy spends a lot of time trying to show how the city is screwing over the Creationists, beginning with the safety fee:
In frequent discussions with the city over the last three months, Ark Encounter leadership had proposed that the fee be capped, and recently suggested a maximum of a half million dollars per year. Ark representatives made it clear that it had concerns about the fairness of the city ordinance, for it makes the Ark Encounter bear almost the entire load for the increased funding to cover Williamstown’s budget for police, fire, and EMS. This is a city of 4,000 residents.
Ark Encounter leadership has agreed to meet the requirement of the ordinance. Since July 1, the Ark has been adding 50 cents to each ticket purchase, to meet the requirement of the ordinance. Ark officials have tried to negotiate what they believed was a fair approach, rather than an open-ended one, to the safety tax, and still meet the city’s needs.
The filing for an exemption as a religious non-profit (as permitted in the ordinance), was done in an attempt to get the county to change the wording as it currently stands, which would exempt the Ark Encounter. It was not to avoid paying its fair share, as some articles have suggested.
The Ark was offering to pay up to $500,000 a year into the safety fund. The city rejected the offer.
Looy is fully admitting that there was no financial reason to change the attraction’s for-profit status. They did it purely to put pressure on city officials.
That also means they nearly lost $18 million because of a strategic move gone horribly wrong. That’s dumb, even for Creationists.
And this idea that Ark Encounter is already paying its fair share is absurd. When a city has 4,000 people and (let’s be honest) not a lot of reasons for outsiders to come visit, a $100 million boat is a big freaking deal.
I don’t know how many people visited Williamstown in 2015, but I promise you whatever increase occurred in the years to follow were a direct result of Ark Encounter. Even as we debate whether Ark Encounter’s attendance numbers are as high as Ken Ham predicted they would be, there’s no doubt they’ve brought hundreds of thousands of people to Williamstown who never would have visited otherwise.
More importantly, more people will continue to visit Williamstown in the near future because of the Ark, and we have no idea how many people that will be. Suppose the Ark eventually brings in 2 million people a year (as Ham once predicted). The cost of resources Williamstown will need on hand to manage all those people will skyrocket.
That’s why it’s absolutely fair to ask Ark Encounter to pay a price per ticket instead of putting a cap on their contributions.
If Ark Encounter is indeed adding the safety surcharge on all tickets already, they’re taking an important step toward making things right with the city.
Looy went on:
To date, more than one million guests have visited the Ark, yet thankfully, calls for emergency services — to both Williamstown and Dry Ridge — have been few in number, averaging about 2 per week. It should also be noted that a user fee is often charged to an individual’s personal insurance for the cost of local medical emergency services’ response to the Ark.
This is all deflection.
It’s irrelevant that only a few people have needed emergency services so far. What’s important is how the potential number of emergencies will go up as more visitors come to the Ark, and the city needs to be prepared for that.
And the line about personal insurance is nonsense. While patients (and their insurance companies) may have to foot the bill for a ride to the ER, I don’t recall ever being asked to directly pay for a new fire truck or police vehicle. That’s what the safety fee covers. Williamstown may not have needed more vehicles on hand a few years ago, but with all these tourists visiting, you can bet they now need more of them ready to go at any moment.
Back to Looy:
There has been much false speculation about the matter over a deed. The [for-profit] Ark Encounter, LLC, operates as a non-profit because it is wholly owned by a non-profit (the LLC is a pass-through entity for tax purposes), which is in turn owned by non-profit Answers in Genesis. 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 that deed has been recorded.
He makes it sounds like they were just trying to clear up confusion… in the same press release where he admitted the ownership changes were all part of a plan to put pressure on city officials over the safety fee.
Looy also doesn’t mention how they reversed course only because the state suspended their tax rebate.
Grant County has benefitted enormously from Ark tourism. In Dry Ridge, many hotels, restaurants, and other tourist-related businesses are flourishing. In a spirit of cooperation, we encourage the city of Williamstown to work with more hotel developers and restaurant brands to build in the area. For its part, when Ark staff attend various civic functions, they frequently encourage entrepreneurs to build in Williamstown.
This, once again, is Ken Ham’s team blaming everyone but themselves for the struggles in the community. The lower-than-estimated attendance at Ark Encounter has left Williamstown with a struggling local economy that hasn’t gotten much better. And don’t forget how a lot of the money that would have normally gone back to the city and the people in it are instead going into Ken Ham’s pocketbook because of deals he signed when he agreed to build the Ark in Williamstown.
While Ham promised a rising tide for the local economy, he’s been the biggest (if not only) beneficiary of them all.
The safety-tax matter has been highly misrepresented. The Ark has always been willing to pay into the safety fund, suggesting a yearly cap of a half million dollars per year.
It hasn’t been misrepresented at all. Notice how Looy didn’t even link to any reporting that’s wrong. That’s because it doesn’t exist. We always knew Answers in Genesis was willing to pay a certain amount for the safety fee, and that amount was always less than what the city needed.
If this press release was supposed to clear all the confusion, it didn’t work. It just proved that the reporters and critics have been right this whole time.