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Oklahoma County assessor, commissioner properties are tax exempt

Oklahoma County Assessor Leonard Sullivan and Oklahoma County Commissioner Ray Vaughn both get a tax break that many Oklahomans would envy.
by Randy Ellis Modified: October 6, 2013 at 10:00 pm •  Published: October 6, 2013

Oklahoma County Assessor Leonard Sullivan and County Commissioner Ray Vaughn both get a tax break that many Oklahomans would envy.

Sullivan and his wife receive $42,000 a year in lease payments from a commercial building in Oklahoma City they own, but pay no property taxes on the building.

Vaughn is part of a family limited liability corporation that is receiving $209,000 in lease payments over 41 months for use of an Edmond building it owns. Vaughn's group doesn't pay property taxes on its building, either.

And it is all perfectly legal.

What's their secret?

Both men lease their properties to tax-exempt, nonprofit organizations.

It is the use — not the ownership — of a property that determines whether a property is tax exempt, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled in a 2002 case involving Integris-related nonprofit charitable entities.

It doesn't matter if the landlord is receiving rent and is not a nonprofit entity, the court said.

For Sullivan and Vaughn, owning income-producing properties in Oklahoma County that are tax exempt could be politically awkward, since property taxes help pay for a majority of their office expenses and their $105,262 annual salaries. As assessor, Sullivan also is responsible for determining the market values of properties in the county for tax purposes.

Sullivan became irritated when asked about the situation.

“I'm going to give them notice tomorrow to move out of the building,” Sullivan said. “I'm doing a charity deal already and you're trying to find a nasty story to do about me.”

Sullivan said it was his tenant, now called Family Builders Inc., that applied for the property tax exemption on the building at 415 NW 5. Sullivan said he has used that tax exemption to help give the organization a break on its rent that far exceeds the value of the excused taxes.

Sullivan said he has been renting the property to Family Builders for about $5 a square foot when he could be getting double that amount.

“They need me. I don't need them,” Sullivan said. “I don't need the aggravation.”

Laura Gamble, executive director of Family Builders, confirmed Sullivan has given her organization a great rent deal. Gamble said she looked into other rental properties about a year ago and found they would cost two or three times as much.

“It would hurt us severely if we lost the lease on this,” she said.

Gamble said her organization provides counseling and educational services aimed at reducing domestic violence and child abuse.

Vaughn's property

Vaughn said it was his tenant who applied for the tax exemption granted for his Edmond property at 13700 N Eastern.

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by Randy Ellis
Investigative Reporter
For the past 30 years, staff writer Randy Ellis has exposed public corruption and government mismanagement in news articles. Ellis has investigated problems in Oklahoma's higher education institutions and wrote stories that ultimately led to two...
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