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Hall tax board under fire again

Allegations have been leveled against appraiser

POSTED: December 13, 2008 5:00 a.m.

A watchdog citizens’ group alleges the county’s chief appraiser incorrectly received a homestead exemption and owes almost $900 in back property taxes.

The allegations come months after an investigation and subsequent resignation of the former chairman of the board of tax assessors.

The Hall County Citizens for Efficient Government plans to ask the board of tax assessors at a meeting this morning not to renew the contract of Chief Appraiser Mike Henderson.

In a letter to Terrell Gaines, chairman of the board, the group’s president calls Henderson’s actions "deplorable and inexcusable."

The group examined Henderson’s tax records and found he received a homestead tax exemption for a mobile home that he owns but no longer lives in.

"When he’s in that position (of chief appraiser), it just doesn’t look good," said Paul Barnes, president of the citizens’ group.

Henderson said Thursday the error was an honest mistake. He also said the accusations are unfair.

"I inadvertently forgot to take the homestead off," Henderson said. "In this case it was my mistake. ... It wasn’t anything on my part that I did intentionally."

Henderson said the piece of property, located on Strickland Road, is the only one he owns, and he was not claiming a homestead exemption anywhere else.

He has begun the process to repay $893.30 in taxes owed since the exemption was removed in November, county tax records show. He has until Jan. 3 to pay the taxes.

Barnes will present the group’s findings to Gaines and the full tax assessors board this morning. James Cantrell, former chief appraiser for real estate, and Lyman Martin, former chief appraiser for personal property, are advising the citizens’ group and will attend the meeting.

In February, Martin and Cantrell accused then-board chairman Emory Martin of misappropriating more than $60,000 of county money by padding per diem time sheets and taking $100 per day payment for days when he did not work. Emory Martin later resigned, and District Attorney Lee Darragh did not bring charges against him following an investigation.

In the latest investigation, the group contends that Henderson has claimed the homestead exemption on a mobile home since at least 2003, even though he did not live there. Lyman Martin estimated the exemption would equal about $225 to $250 per year in taxes.

"He is the chief administrative officer for the board of tax assessors. And that’s what brings the glaring problems out more than anything else in what our research found," Lyman Martin said.

Gaines is confident that Henderson did not purposely maintain the homestead exemption.

"I have no doubt it was an honest mistake," Gaines said. "This is not uncommon for something like this. The only difference between what happened to Mike (Henderson) and a regular taxpayer — a regular taxpayer we would’ve just removed the homestead exemption, and that would have been it. But with Mike, we made sure that everything was straight as far as any breaks in the taxes he had received. So really, it was harder on him than it would have been on a regular taxpayer because we wanted everything to be above board with it."

Henderson’s tax bills are due Jan. 3. State law allows a property owner 60 days to pay taxes if the value is changed. The homestead exemption was removed from Henderson’s property Nov. 3.

County tax records indicate Henderson occasionally has paid his property taxes after the deadline, once as long as 15 months late. Each time his taxes were paid late, he paid the appropriate late fees.

Henderson said Thursday the group shouldn’t concern itself with his personal finances.

"That’s more my personal finances, and I really don’t think that should be public information," Henderson said. "When has anyone else been questioned about when they pay their bills?"

The citizens’ group also alleges that Gaines, as chairman of the board, knew about the exemption. Gaines, a longtime member of the board, succeeded Emory Martin as board chairman.

"We have to assume Mr. Gaines approved it," Lyman Martin said. "The chief administrative officer forgetting five years to take his homestead exemption off, and he does it every day ... we don’t accept that as a legitimate answer."

Cantrell said Gaines should have informed the rest of the board about his decision to let Henderson remove the exemption and pay the difference.

"In something that could be controversial, the whole board should be called together," Cantrell said.

Gaines did not bring the matter before the board, but said he feels he handled the situation appropriately. Gaines said he approached Henderson about the discrepancy in his property taxes when he became aware of it.

"When something comes to your attention, you go ahead and handle the thing," Gaines said. "I would assume that’s what the taxpayers of Hall County would expect."

Victoria Cook, a board member since July 24, said she was not aware of the decision Gaines made about Henderson’s taxes. She said she wants to hear Henderson’s side before taking any action.

"I had absolutely no idea about him paying back taxes," Cook said. "It just feels like one was snuck by us. ... There are a lot of questions that need to be answered."

For his part, Barnes said Henderson’s tax records make him less trustful of the entire office, which is already under scrutiny after the Emory Martin controversy earlier this year.

"The only way this can end is if these three men leave," Barnes said of Henderson, Gaines and Bill Vaughan. Gaines and Vaughan are the remaining members of the tax assessors board who served under Emory Martin. "I’m not backing off."



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