GOP officials squabble over property taxes

By Chris Butler | Tennessee Watchdog

NASHVILLE — Sumner County’s property appraiser says without hesitation the county’s director of schools and the county executive privately told him — in an alleged violation of Sunshine laws — to increase property values by 10 percent.

But County Executive Anthony Holt and Director of Schools Del Phillips said Assessor of Property John Isbell is misrepresenting the facts.

Holt told Tennessee Watchdog he would welcome the county district attorney investigating the matter, which so far hasn’t happened.

John Isbell

Sumner is a hard red Republican county, but party ties aren’t exactly endearing one side to the other. There are seemingly no gray areas with either side’s stories, and no room for one side to misinterpret the others’ actions or words.

“I have no problems putting my hand on the Bible and saying they met with me,” Isbell said.

Property values in the county haven’t returned to pre-2008 levels. Isbell said raising property values, which, he says, Holt and Phillips wanted him to do, is now unnecessary.

Isbell said his refusal to go along led Holt and other county officials to take the matter to state officials in Nashville, specifically before the Tennessee Board of Equalization.

The board heard complaints about Isbell’s performance, specifically complaints that Isbell changed appraisals to 35 percent of the parcels in the county, after the state’s Division of Property Assessments signed off on his values.

That 35 percent translates to roughly 25,000 properties, which was substantial, said state spokesman John Dunn.

Isbell, who has served as assessor for 10 years, said he granted those appeals to people who knew their properties were overvalued.

Anthony Holt

Board members found no evidence of wrongdoing by Isbell, who has earned prior recognition at the state and federal level for his work.

Board members did, however, express concerns about his record-keeping habits, Dunn said.

“Our Division of Property Assessments was assigned to that job by the state Board of Equalization,” Dunn said.

“They didn’t feel there was adequate documentation to support the number of changes that they saw, like he hadn’t been keeping great records, essentially. Normally when you go in and appeal your valuation you show them something . You say, ‘I just had a recent appraisal on my house and I’ve got the proof right here. I believe you have my value wrong.’

“They might say they made a mistake, but those kinds of records and notations were not in the vast majority of these changes that had occurred,” Dunn said.

State officials told the county to use previously accepted values, which were delivered before the changes.

County officials are reviewing those changes to determine whether they were proper, Dunn said.

So why do county officials want more revenue?

Isbell says it’s because county schools need more money not so much for students but for new administrators, as unfunded state and federal mandates call for.

Phillips’ office was unable to provide statistics on how many new administrators the school system has added.

In an email, Phillips did not address the topic of unfunded mandates and instead said the school system has added 4,000 news students in the past decade.

Phillips also took the occasion to attack Isbell’s credibility.

Photo courtesy of Sumner County School System's website.

Del Phillps

“It appears to be a pattern for Mr. Isbell to say or do things without any documentation — that appeared to be the primary concern with the reappraisal process,” Isbell said Friday.

Holt, though, told Tennessee Watchdog unfunded mandates are a problem, even though he didn’t elaborate on what kinds of unfunded mandates are coming from the state and federal governments.

Holt also said public employee benefits aren’t driving the school system’s need for more money.

“Matters are not as simplistic as what the assessor is making it out to be,” Holt said.

“I think the assessor is worried about what’s going on, and he’s trying to get some cover.”

But Isbell, who is up for re-election in 2016, said he is more authoritative on the subject of property values than either Holt or Phillips.

Contact Christopher Butler at chris@tennesseewatchdog.org

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Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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