TOPEKA — Sedgwick County officials said a tax-exempt house where Wichita City Council member and state Senate candidate Michael O’Donnell lives may need to be placed back on the tax rolls in the wake of a complaint from a Wisconsin-based group.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation asked the county appraiser’s office to investigate the tax-exempt status of O’Donnell’s home at 1435 W. Haskell St. The home is a former parsonage for Grace Baptist Church, where O’Donnell’s father is pastor.
O’Donnell called the issue “patently political.”
The group says the home has been tax exempt since 1996 and should be used only by an acting minister in order to be exempt from property taxes. The group wants Grace Baptist Church or O’Donnell to pay current and back taxes on the home.
The house was appraised this year at $76,100. It’s listed as tax-exempt and county records show no general property taxes have been billed since at least 2002.
Sedgwick County Appraiser Michael Borchard said that if the use of a tax-exempt property changes, it is the property owner’s responsibility to notify the county. When an exemption is granted, it continues each year until the property owner notifies the county the use has changed, he said.
“Since we got the letter, if they (the property owners) don’t let us know, we’re going to end up asking probably,” he said.
Borchard said the house on Haskell — near Seneca and Pawnee — is exempt because it is listed as a parsonage. If the predominant use is not for church clergy or a pastor, it would no longer be exempt, he said.
If the county determines the use changed years ago and should not have been exempt, it could pursue current property taxes and back taxes for the past two years, he said.
“We’d have to know when the exempt use was no longer occurring,” he said.
O’Donnell said Friday that he hasn’t seen the complaint. He confirmed that he rents the home and that it is owned by Grace Baptist Church.
Typically, when someone rents a property they don’t pay the taxes on it, he said.
“I don’t own it,” he said. “So why would I pay property taxes on it?”
Peggy Knudtsen, an FFRF member in Wichita, contacted The Eagle about the issue. She said her group thinks the church should pay taxes on the property.
“If the church owns the home and it’s not paying property taxes on it, they must use it as a parsonage,” she said. “If they’re renting it and earning real income, they should be paying income tax and property tax on it if it’s not being used as a parsonage.”
The Rev. Michael O’Donnell, the councilman’s father, said late Friday afternoon the church is working with Borchard and the Christian Law Center to resolve the issue.
His son said Grace Baptist Church owns a neighboring property at 1425 W. Haskell St. Records show it is also tax exempt. The church is nearby at 1414 W. Pawnee.
Churches commonly buy nearby homes to use for mission houses, parsonages and other staff activities. O’Donnell declined to comment on whether or not his use of the house would be classified as church-related.
O’Donnell said he was first offered the house in exchange for his work as the church’s janitor, which ended in late 2008 or 2009. Since then, he has been paying rent.
Knudtsen said the issue is unrelated to O’Donnell’s Senate bid, and “in fact isn’t an issue for Michael, other than the house is owned by the church his father pastors, which seems to be sort of a conflict of interest.”
O’Donnell’s residency has been an issue since he first ran for Wichita City Council in 2007, when he was disqualified because he was still a registered voter in Bel Aire, where his parents live. O’Donnell said he was living there at the time and that he has rented the home on West Haskell since.
In a news release, FFRF officials said they’re challenging in federal court preferential income tax benefits for ministers, often called “the parsonage exemption,” created by Congress almost 50 years ago. Ministers, who are paid in tax-free dollars, can exclude housing income furnished as part of that pay.
O’Donnell defeated Wichita Republican Sen. Jean Schodorf in the August primary race. He faces Democrat Timothy Snow and Libertarian Dave Thomas in the November general election.
FFRF calls itself a national state-church watchdog based in Madison, Wis., with more than 19,000 members nationwide, including Kansas.