9 Investigates: Church property tax loophole

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ORANGE COUNTY, Fla.,None —

WFTV uncovered local church leaders living in mansions and behind gates and not paying a dime in property taxes. It costs Orange County hundreds of thousands of dollars each year, and a state loophole is allowing more than 80 local properties to get away with it.

A five-bed, five-bath, 7,000-square-foot home in Belle Isle was recently appraised at more than $2.4 million.
The expansive lakefront property is gated. There are tennis courts, a pool and a guest house.

Annual property taxes should be more than $44,000, but the people living there aren't paying a dime of that.

"Well I think it's outrageous, and very unfair to we taxpayers of Belle Isle," taxpayer Carolyn Rigante said.

Unfair or not, it's perfectly legal because religious institutions are exempt from property taxes under state law, and so are homes where their pastors live.

"The religious exemption came about because churches and synagogues and temples all provide services that otherwise the city or county may have to pick up. So to give them credit for it, they allowed the churches to be exempt from property taxes," Orange County property appraiser Bill Donegan said.

The Belle Isle estate is owned by the Green Hill Presbyterian Church. When WFTV went to ask about it, a man there identified himself as a pastor, but said he doesn't live in the parsonage and he wasn't the person to talk to.

He referred WFTV to the church's attorney, but when we asked how he'd respond to taxpayers, he said, "I'm sorry. If there are issues, do what we do. Pray about it."

Eighty-seven other properties across Orange County are also off the tax rolls, such as a home near Windermere and a lakefront property in an exclusive gated community near Winter Garden.

There's no cap on just how big or expensive these properties can be. Combined, it means the county is losing out on more than $304,000 in property taxes per year.

But unless lawmakers suddenly decide to change the decades old law, officials said it's here to stay.

"I always say, show me a tax system that's fair in this world. You can't. There is no tax system that is fair," Donegan said.

Church leaders WFTV spoke with didn't indicate they had any plans of changing their habits.