The Herald Bulletin

Morning Update

Opinion

November 12, 2012

Editorial: Property tax reductions still smell like a rat

When local officials get apparent sweetheart deals, it naturally arouses public suspicion. When other officials who signed off on the deals won’t clear the air, it further encourages speculation of wrongdoing.

That’s what’s happened in the case of four Madison County councilmen — Rick Gardner, Mike Gaskill, Mike Phipps and David McCartney — who received reductions of the assessed value of their property over the past two years, thereby driving their property taxes down.

The reductions came through the office of County Assessor Larry Davis, who is a political ally of the four councilmen. Some of the reductions took place in 2010, before Davis took office, but the majority took place under his watch.

In an article published Nov. 3 in The Herald Bulletin, Davis didn’t offer an explanation of the reductions. Instead, he merely said, “I want everybody’s assessment to be fair. The integrity of this office is very important to me.”

Really? Then defend these assessment adjustments:

  • Assessments of eight of Gaskill’s properties fell by a combined 24 percent, reducing his tax liability by $3,585.
  • Assessments of eight of Gardner’s properties fell by a combined 20 percent, reducing his tax liability by $1,206.
  • The assessment of one Phipps property fell by 58 percent, reducing his tax liability by $352.
  • The assessment of one McCartney property fell by 7 percent, reducing his tax liability by $35.

Now, the councilmen argue that they simply applied for property tax relief and got it. They say they didn’t game the system; they simply got the sort of adjustments that any citizen could get.

Maybe. But Davis, consciously or subconsciously, couldn’t help but regard their petitions favorably. It certainly looks that way from the vantage point of the average property owner.

Davis could have avoided this appearance of impropriety by seeking help from outside his department to consider the councilmen’s petitions. It would be worth the cost, in such cases, to hire an independent adjustor to consider the cases.

That would have been a good starting point to make sure that the adjustments were done with impartiality. But Davis’ biggest mistake has been not explaining in detail the reasoning behind the reductions.

When local officials don’t clear the air, the smell of a rat lingers.

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