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Hillel, county in tax squabble over Sababa UF restaurant

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Posted: Thursday, October 3, 2013 2:26 am

Two advertisements released by a kosher meal vendor during the Summer have sparked a legal dispute about UF Hillel’s tax exemption status in Alachua County.

The issue focuses on Sababa UF restaurant, which sells kosher meals to students in a 1,416-square-foot area inside the center, located at 2020 W. University Ave. Hillel and the Alachua County Property Appraiser’s office will meet today with county officials to determine whether the space is considered tax exempt.

The meeting comes nearly a month after Yvonne Yegge, a licensed attorney who oversaw the matter, wrote in an official recommendation to the county’s Value Adjustment Board that the appraiser’s office’s decision to deny religious tax exemption for the space was invalid.

During the Summer, Sababa released a Groupon discount and a television commercial advertising its Mediterranean and vegan food.

Rabbi Lou Feldstein, Hillel’s interim executive director and CEO, said Sababa did not have Hillel’s approval to release the advertisements.

“It is not Sababa’s space,” he said. “That is our space used for our program.”

Although the center pulled the Groupon offer and television commercial, the ads caught the attention of the appraiser’s office, which started an investigation.

The appraiser’s office determined Sababa used space inside the center for a nonreligious purpose and reported the area should be taxed.

Under Florida law, nonprofits, including religious institutions and charities, can apply for tax exemption. One criteria requires an applicant to prove no space on a property is used to make money.

“It’s when the commercial aspect kicks in,” said Charles Bates, an attorney for the property appraiser’s office. “The statute requires [Hillel] be denied an exemption.”

Feldstein said Sababa moved into the center last year to provide kosher meals for students.

“It’s a core component to our commitment to service the needs of the Jewish Student Body and Jewish community of the University of Florida,” he said.

The center rented out space in the building’s second floor to Sababa, Yegge wrote, to “ensure that those students who kept kosher were able to participate in all Hillel events and were able to partake in any food-related activities.”

In June, the appraiser’s office sent a notice to Hillel, stating it denied the center’s exemption status.

Hillel, however, petitioned the notice, saying the office violated state law by not providing a clear reason for why it denied the center tax exemption.

During an August hearing, the magistrate made a recommendation in favor of Hillel. Yegge wrote the office’s notice used incorrect wording and did not provide facts to describe the center’s ineligibility for exemption.

Bates and the appraiser’s office disagreed with the recommendation and decided to appeal it to the board, which led to today’s discussion. Bates said the appraiser’s notice did say a portion of the center’s property, where Sababa is located, was used for nonexempt purposes.

“That’s as clear as you can get,” he said.

A version of this story ran on page 1 on 10/3/2013 under the headline "Hillel, county in tax squabble over Sababa UF restaurant"

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