No date set for appointment of property assessor

J. H. Osborne • Updated Jul 17, 2017 at 9:37 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — There’s no firm timeline for when the Sullivan County Commission will appoint an interim property assessor, County Mayor Richard Venable and various commissioners told the Times-News recently.

The county hasn’t yet advertised the appointment process, a step required by law. So nothing will be happening at the commission’s regular monthly meeting on Monday (July 17).

In the meantime, staff members in the property assessor’s office are working jointly to cover the duties of the assessor, turning regularly to Venable for direction if a question comes up, he said Friday.

Progress toward tax rate

Venable also confirmed the county has received the state’s certified tax rate for the fiscal year that began July 1. That rate is based on  the state’s review of the countywide property reassessment. Venable declined to provide details of that report, which he said is pending review by county officials and an outside consultant asked to verify some figures in light of the county not currently having a property assessor.

Several sources have told the Times-News the certified rate is 10 or 11 cents less than last year’s $2.5754 (per $100 of assessed value) county property tax rate. That is similar to the state’s certified tax rate for the city of Kingsport’s property tax rate, which resulted in a decrease of about 10 cents.  

The county goes through a reassessment every four years, and this was one of those years. In such years, the state calculates a certified tax rate that is meant to generate the same amount of tax revenue as the prior year’s tax rate. If a locality chooses to adopt a rate higher than the certified rate, it is a tax increase and must by law be advertised as such.

The vacant position

Between the death of Property Assessor Ron Hillman on June 5 and the commission’s meeting on June 26, his chief deputy, Randy Morrell, a 38-year employee of the office, performed the duties of assessor.

But Morrell announced his intention to retire after the Republican-dominated commission bypassed him on June 26 in favor of Robert “Bob” White. Morrell is one of only two members of the 24-member commission who are not Republicans. 

On June 26, there were 16 applicants who sought appointment to the property assessor’s job, which pays about $95,000 per year and has little in the way of requirements. Basically, the property assessor must be be over 18 years old and live in the county. Like other county officeholders, the assessor must be eligible to be bonded.

In addition to White and Morrell, Donna Whitaker, another longtime employee of the office, was among those seeking the appointment. Whitaker was hired years ago by former assessor Bob Icenhour. She is Hillman’s niece by marriage. 

Commissioner Mark Vance nominated Whitaker. Commissioner Sherry Grubb crossed party boundaries to nominate Morrell, pointing to his years of experience and the fact he had been doing the job already. Commissioner Dennis Houser — the only non-Republican on the 24-member commission besides Morrell — nominated White, who was then a commissioner and the only applicant who didn’t submit a resume.

In a roll-call vote, Morrell received three votes (Darlene Calton, John Gardner and Grubb); Whitaker received five votes (Michael Cole, Baxter Hood, Pat Shull, Angie Stanley and Vance); and White received 11 votes (Mark Bowery, Larry Crawford, Terry Harkleroad, Mack Harr, Houser, Matthew Johnson, Bill Kilgore, Kit McGlothlin, Bobby Russell, Cheryl Russell and Eddie Wlliams). White reached the 12 votes needed when Joe Herron changed his initial “pass” to a vote for White.

White, following state law, resigned his commission seat immediately. Four days later, he resigned from the property assessor’s job.

Politics plays role

Under state law, the county commission has 120 days from the date a vacancy occurs to fill such positions.

The appointee serves until voters go to the polls in August 2018. In that election, voters will choose someone to fill the remainder of the four-year term Hillman began in 2016.

Venable said his office has kept on file the resumes of those who applied last month and continues to receive applications and inquiries from new would-be hopefuls for the job.

What many don’t seem to understand, Venable said, is the highly political nature of the appointment process. The office of property assessor is among partisan races on the ballot. Some Republicans have so far seemed determined to make sure the interim appointment goes only to a member of the GOP. And no matter your party affiliation or qualifications for the job, only commissioners may make nominations. So your resume might not get much attention if at least one commissioner isn’t at least familiar with you and willing to nominate you for the appointment.

Emails requested

Hillman’s death, White’s appointment and subsequent resignation four days later and the new search have also opened another potential can of worms for county government.

The Bristol Herald-Courier has filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) seeking all emails related to Hillman’s death, the search for a replacement, and White’s appointment and resignation, according to a public conversation Venable — with some assistance from County Attorney Dan Street — had with county commissioners during a work session last week.

Venable said the newspaper’s request was direct and limited in its actual scope: it asks for all emails between his office and county commissioners on their official governmental email accounts.

Therein lies the possible can of worms.

Several commissioners quickly pointed out they don’t actually use their official accounts. Commissioner Baxter Hood, for example, pointed out that on the county’s official website, under the section where citizens are told they can find contact information for commissioners, the email listed for him is his personal email.

In fact, a check of the website on Saturday showed only one commissioner seems to have listed an official government email address through sullivancountytn.gov.

Street said when considering what to submit in answer to the FOIA request, commissioners should keep in mind the newspaper always has the option to amend its request to a broader scope than the current wording (official government email accounts) includes.

Several months ago, at taxpayer expense, each county commissioner was given use of a brand new tablet and issued an official governmental email address. At the time, Venable told the Times-News a goal was to limit the use of those email addresses to intergovernmental correspondence to keep it all government-related.