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O’Donnell recants his account of his housing deal

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Monday, Sep. 10, 2012, at 9:24 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2012, at 7:16 p.m.

Wichita City Council member and state Senate candidate Michael O’Donnell recanted on Monday his August account of the deal he has with his father’s church to live in a tax-exempt former church parsonage at 1435 W. Haskell in south Wichita.

Meanwhile, Sedgwick County appraiser’s officials say no decision has been made on the tax status of O’Donnell’s home, owned by Grace Baptist Church, the church his father pastors.

O’Donnell on Monday confirmed an account his father gave The Eagle several days ago: That the council member “misspoke,” as the senior O’Donnell put it, in August when he told an Eagle reporter that he had paid rent for the house. O’Donnell said in August that he lived in the house rent-free in exchange for work as a church janitor that ended in 2008 or 2009, after which he paid rent to the church.

Instead, O’Donnell said Monday he continues to work for the church without pay and gets the home rent-free in return, income he reports annually on his income taxes.

“I’ve never paid rent, a payment-like rent. I’m a regular giver to the church, meaning I give to the church. And I put it on my income taxes,” O’Donnell said Monday. “I do all kinds of stuff, working on the building, pretty much anything. My dad doesn’t have a very big staff, so I help my dad out with projects, take care of the facilities and grounds. I’ve done some extensive updates on the house.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation in late August asked the Sedgwick County Appraiser’s Office to take a look at the tax-exempt status of the house, appraised this year at $76,100. County records show no general property taxes have been billed since at least 2002. The foundation calls itself a national state-church watchdog based in Madison, Wis., with more than 19,000 members nationwide, including Kansas.

In late August, Sedgwick County Appraiser Mike Borchard told The Eagle that if the home’s predominant use isn’t for church clergy or a pastor, it would no longer be exempt and could be liable for current property taxes and back taxes.

The foundation also claimed in August that if O’Donnell were paying rent, the church could be liable for income taxes.

If the use of a tax-exempt property changes, it is the property owner’s responsibility to notify the county, Borchard said in August. When an exemption is granted, it continues each year until the property owner notifies the county the use has changed. Borchard is out of the office until late September, a spokesman for the office said, and it is unclear whether a decision will be made before his return.

O’Donnell’s residency has been an issue since 2007 when he first ran for Wichita City Council. 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 has rented the home on West Haskell since.

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.

Peggy Knudtson, a spokeswoman for the Wichita foundation’s chapter, declined comment, saying the group will wait for Borchard’s ruling.

Reach Bill Wilson at 316-268-6290 or bwilson@wichitaeagle.com.

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