The prayers of several churches went unanswered earlier this year when they asked Lake County to stop taxing property they needed to begin or expand their spiritual missions.

By contrast, county government had been giving a free ride to a motorcycle club.

These are among some of the vagaries among Lake County's many property tax exemptions that make medical facilities, schools and even some union halls practically invisible to the tax man.

A three-month Times investigation found more than 4,000 of the county's total of 247,000 parcels hold exemptions belonging to religious organizations or secular nonprofits that benefit from a long tradition of government generosity. 

The list, which accounts for 1.6 percent of all properties in the county, represents about $1.6 billion in lost assessed value, or 5.1 percent of the county's whole for 2014.

It is not a complete tabulation, since a number of real estate and personal property from school gymnasiums to fire trucks are permanently exempt by state law because they are owned and used by other local government agencies, said county Assessor Jolie Covaciu, whose office oversees tax exemptions.

Most property tax exemptions in Indiana fall into the three broad state constitutional categories of charitable, educational and religious. Other entities have been granted exemptions over the years through subsequent special legislation.

The list of tax exemptions was expanded this year by state lawmakers to include properties leased by government entities, said State Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso. State government sent out notices calling on landlords to adjust down any applicable lease payments to reflect the absence of taxes, he said.

The county issues tens of thousands of tax breaks annually, primarily homestead deductions, to homeowners who have only to fill out a simple form.

But tax exemptions are more closely guarded. Applicants must complete a five-page application requesting answers to more than 80 questions, from the property's legal description to the qualifications of those doing the exempted activity.

Three local religious groups didn't navigate the paperwork to the county's satisfaction. Covaciu said the church groups can appeal their denials and win their exemptions yet.

The Sin City Deciples, a Gary motorcycle club, has operated a headquarters in Gary without being billed for property taxes for six years, without the benefit of an exemption they ever received.

The assessor's office failed to void an exemption on the property, from the time it was a Masonic lodge doing charitable work, when the motorcycle club took it in 2008.

County Recorder Mike B. Brown blamed a lack of communication that year among county offices handling property changes and taxes. He said the county is removing the exemption, following The Times investigation.

More than 1,700 real estate and personal property exemptions are held in the names of church parishes, temples, congregations and religious groups.

The Gary Diocese of the Roman Catholic Church alone holds exemptions for 230 properties with an assessed value of $131 million. The remaining religious properties have an assessed value of $326 million.

Some 239 public and private schools with an assessed value of $83 million are exempted, from Purdue University Calumet to Creative Hair Styling Academy, also known as Tricoci University in Highland. It offers training in esthetics and cosmetology to be licensed for work in Indiana, said Lisa Price, the academy's general manager.

Some 18 unions hold 73 real estate and personal property exemptions in the name of vocational education, totaling $13 million in assessed value.

The unions represent: postal workers, Gary firefighters, musicians, steelworkers, plumbers, pipe fitters, electrical workers, carpenters, boilermakers, laborers and plasters, among others.

Charitable exemptions held by Franciscan Alliance, Methodist Hospital, South Bend Medical Foundation, Munster Medical Research Foundation Inc., St. Mary Medical Center and St. Catherine Hospital total $491 million in assessed value.

Another large class of exemptions are 186 parcels primarily in Gary and Hammond that were donated to Shirley Heinze Land Trust and Nature Conservancy under a statute that permits exemptions to preserve the environment. They have a combined assessed value of more than $26 million.

Kris Krouse, executive director of the Heinze Land Trust, said his organization has been gathering and holding its parcels since 1981 in memory of Shirley Heinz, a supporter of the Dunes and land conservation.

"We are very focused on preserving high quality natural areas, restoring it and making it accessible to the public," Krouse said.

He said his group has acquired 250 parcels in Gary's Ivanhoe South neighborhood over the years that now make up a 50-acre preserve.

"We took a place that was a dumping ground, we removed a thousand tires, removed invasive plants and replanted natives," he said.

He said they also have picked up rare and ecologically significant parcels of dune and swale habitat in Gary's Miller section.

"That is an example of how we have been able to do land preservation in a pretty unique part of the country," Krouse said.

He said some question why environmental organizations are allowed to take so much land off local tax rolls.

"If it had development potential, we wouldn't have been able to buy them at tax sale for $200 a parcel. Some families have held it for generations, are tired of paying property taxes, so the come to us to relieve them of this burden. We turn it into a community resource," Krouse said.