0403TAXAUDListen to attorney Ashley Bell detail his investigation into allegations of financial improprieties by the Hall County Board of Tax Assessors.
The Hall County Board of Tax Assessors continues to undergo scrutiny this week as attorney Ashley Bell presented the findings of his investigation to county commissioners Wednesday regarding his clients’ allegations of financial improprieties within the tax assessors office.
Lyman Martin and James Cantrell both worked in the Hall County Tax Assessors Office for more than 20 years, and hired Bell in late 2007 to investigate Hall County Board of Tax Assessors Chairman Emory Martin, Jr., as well as board members Terrell Gaines and William Vaughan.
The retired county employees came forward in February to levy allegations of padded per diem time sheets, improper holiday pay and at least one improper assessment against the three-man board.
Bell has also highlighted that the three
tax assessors, who are recognized as part-time county employees, receive health insurance benefits from the county, a benefit typically reserved for full-time county employees. According to Hall County Human Resources Director Charley Nix, the tax assessors are the only part-time county employees other than county commissioners who receive county health insurance benefits.
Bell also listed 16 holidays between 2002 and 2005 where Martin was paid a per diem, and maintains that Gaines and Vaughan were both paid a per diem for ten holidays between 2002 and 2004.
According to Bell, board policy states that at least two tax assessors must meet in county offices in order to warrant per diem payment. Bell maintains that it was physically impossible for two tax assessors to have met on any one of the holidays for which they were paid, including Christmas Eve and Christmas Day of 2002, because county offices were closed and locked.
He added that the county budgets 104 days of per diem payment each fiscal year for the tax assessors board.
District Attorney Lee Darragh declined to comment on the allegations except to say he is currently investigating the matter.
"This is just gross misconduct," Bell said. "Emory Martin was the highest paid county tax assessor in the state between 2001 and 2005. This is so blatant, it’s criminal, and that’s why the (district attorney) is looking into it. For people to feel satisfied that this is righted, this money needs to be paid back."
Steven Gilliam, who is representing the tax assessors board members, said the board members were following the policy that had been in effect for 22 years, since Emory Martin was first appointed to the board.
In addition, Gilliam said that a clause was added in January 2005 to the tax assessors board policy that justifies the per diem payments Martin received on days he worked without the presence of another board member.
"In 2005, a policy was added that they would be paid when meeting individually with tax payers; they would be paid that $100 per diem," Gilliam said.
According to the policies and procedures for the Hall County Board of Tax Assessors as approved by Martin, Gaines and Vaughan on Jan. 5, 2005, the rules and regulations state: "Individual board members are contacted by staff and/or taxpayer from time to time with matters (sic) necessitating immediate action. In these type situations each board member will be compensated if said matter requires board member to be physically present in the office to respond to said matter. Board will review assessor payroll regarding individual board member compensation."
Although Nix said that he could not find any action within the Hall County Human Resources department that documents county commissioners’ approval for members of the Hall County Board of Tax Assessors to receive county health insurance benefits, county tax assessors have been receiving insurance since at least the 1980s.
"We looked pretty hard in our archives to find the origin of these benefits," Nix said. "I simply can’t find it. It’s been going on for at least 20 years, as far as we can tell."
Nix said the assessors may not be receiving health insurance benefits illegally as a result of his inability to locate the document sanctioning its establishment.
"The board of commissioners can decide to cover them with health insurance if they choose to do so. The tax assessors board is a very active board compared to other county boards," he said. "My concern is that I would like to make sure we are consistently applying our health insurance policy coverage throughout the county and other boards. At this time, it does deserve another look."
Bell said he conducted a 10-question survey of the tax boards in 25 of the most comparable counties in size to Hall County according to the number of real estate parcels annually reviewed in each county, and found that 22 of the counties’ tax boards met only 24 times per year and none received health insurance benefits. His survey also revealed that 72 percent of the counties had five, not three board members.
Bell said that he would like to see county commissioners impose a flat payment each month for tax assessors, and to create a five-member tax board to create more checks and balances within the office.
"This has been going on because nobody’s asked any questions until now. With the budgets coming up right now, we know in this department, there’s room for improvement," Bell said.
"We really need to check into this," said Hall County Commissioner Bobby Banks. "If it’s not illegal, then it’s still probably unethical, and we need to find out how he (Martin) has 661 more days than the other two guys. It seems there’s always something popping up, where something may be legal, but may be not ethical."
Tom Oliver, Hall County Board of Commissioners Chairman, said he reserved comment on the matter until the district attorney informed the commission on the results of his investigation. Darragh refrained from providing a time frame for the investigation.