February 22, 2013 at 1:00 am

Detroit tax review members face scrutiny for own bills

One exempts his upscale home as a parsonage; another hadn't paid property taxes for 3 years

Detroit — The chairman of a city board that rules on tax appeals contends his upscale home is exempt from being taxed because it is a church parsonage.

The Rev. Ronald Henderson hasn't paid taxes on his home in the Victoria Park subdivision since 2009 because the home is owned by his Word of Life Christian Ministries, which holds services in the basement of downtown's Hilton Garden Inn.

Tax bills for his neighbors are $2,000 to $4,000.

City officials said the designation is legal, but property owners who have appealed tax assessments to the nine-member Board of Review contend it's not fair.

"That's not right," said Detroiter Peggy Noble, when told of the exemption. She was denied an assessment decrease a few years ago on her west side home. "I am just sick and tired of city government.

"They let some folks get away with not paying and people like me have to pay. The system is all messed up."

Henderson said he doesn't see a conflict between his tax exemption and his job, adding that his faith helps in the post that pays as much as $27,000. Board members make $180 per day - or $45 an hour. The city defines a day as four hours.

"I think I have more compassion for people," Henderson said. "Me being a minister and pastor, those stories really tug at me."

State law allows churches to have parsonages, even if they rent space for services. Henderson bought the house for $277,000 in 2001 and assigned the property to his church in 2007, county records show.

City Council President Pro Tem Gary Brown, who nominated Henderson to the board, wasn't aware of the designation until he was told about it by The Detroit News. An investigation this month revealed nothing improper, Brown said.

"We don't see a problem," Brown said.

Another board member, Willie Donwell, didn't pay his taxes for three years until this month. He paid the bill, about $2,000, after being contacted by The News.

Donwell, a music producer who once worked for the pop star Prince, filed for bankruptcy in May.

His bankruptcy was forced because he faced more than $1 million in judgments from lawsuits. Prince sued him in 1999 over concert fees, while Poison lead singer Bret Michaels sued Donwell in 2011 over canceled cruise ship performances. The suits have been settled.

"During the bankruptcy I couldn't pay anything," he said.

Henderson and other board members said they work hard. Hearing appeals in March can require 14-hour days and work on Saturdays. The board also hears hardship exemption applications later in the year from hundreds of property owners with money problems.

cmacdonald@detroitnews.com

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