A potential battle among Hall County commissioners is brewing over the appointment of Jeff Benefield to the Hall County Tax Assessors Board.
In November, Benefield, who was filling the unexpired term of Terrell Gaines, was reappointed to a full six-year term starting Jan. 1.
At the first commission meeting of the year Jan. 6, commissioners decided 4-1 to vacate the position, send legal questions to the state attorney general and appoint Paul Barnes to the spot if the attorney general didn’t respond in 90 days.
But on Friday, Benefield was sworn into office by Clerk of Court Charles Baker.
Commissioner Craig Lutz, who was pushing to put Barnes on the board, hinted at legal action to challenge Benefield’s appointment.
“It seems like the tax assessors board has gone against the will of the commission for this to stay vacant, which is disappointing and definitely setting up a potential legal crisis that could cost additional legal fees,” he said Friday.
“The way I am reading the law, the position has to be opened and reviewed by the commission when filling an unexpired term, so we’re in a legal quandary. This has to do with the process, not the individual.”
At the Jan. 6 meeting, Lutz questioned the board’s Nov. 11 reappointment. He thought the position needed to be vacant before another appointment occurred and criticized the board for not reviewing Benefield’s credentials. He also didn’t think Benefield completed necessary training to be appointed.
“One of the primary complaints I received on the campaign train had to do with tax assessments,” Lutz said Friday. “Not knowing Rev. Benefield, I felt it would be better to put someone on the board that I had a personal relationship with, someone that could keep me informed and take input from me on what I am hearing from the constituency.”
New county attorney Charles Johnson said appointments to the board can be made only when a seat is vacant, suggesting Benefield’s appointment should have come later than Nov. 11.
“We’ve looked at this,” Johnson said. “My reading of the statue is that the appointments are made by the commission to fill an unexpired term. His term did not expire until Dec. 31.”
But documents obtained by The Times show that Benefield and the other four members of the board were all appointed to their terms more than a month before the previous term expired, as required by law.
Now that Benefield has been sworn into his position, Lutz is considering the next option.
“I am ever mindful of the burden on the taxpayers. I will have to evaluate the cost of legal action versus the benefits,” he said. “I feel like this move by the tax assessors board has put the taxpayer at risk for additional legal expenses, and I believe already for this fiscal year, the tax assessors board is over their legal budget by three times.”
Lutz first called attention to the appointment after he attended the Nov. 11 meeting, in which former Commissioner Bobby Banks appointed Benefield to the position, seconded by Commissioner Billy Powell.
Commissioner Ashley Bell saw that Benefield’s current term would expire on Dec. 31, 2010, and recommended the appointment should be made after Jan. 1.
The commission’s final vote came to 3-1, with Bell opposed and former Commissioner Steve Gailey absent. This is the ruling Baker followed this week.
“I didn’t know he was serving an unexpired term, and I didn’t realize they reappointed him, so I didn’t know he needed to be sworn in again,” Baker said Friday. “Once I got the minutes of the Nov. 11 county commission, we decided to move forward with the resolution from last year’s governing board.”
Don Elrod, Hall County’s interim chief tax appraiser, asked Baker to swear in Benefield before the Jan. 6 county commission meeting. Baker said he needed to call the county attorney first and then “respectfully declined” to swear in Benefield.
“I saw that a tax assessor board appointment was listed on the county commission’s Jan. 6 agenda,” Baker said Friday. “I wanted to wait until the decision was final.”
This is different than what Baker told Whit Powell, chairman of the tax assessors board.
“Charles called me this week and asked me if we wanted Jeff to be sworn in today,” Powell said. “During that phone conversation, he told me that he called somebody, who advised him not to swear Jeff in, but he wouldn’t say who that was.”
On Friday, Baker continued to deny any conversations with commissioners about the swearing in.
Since Jan. 6, Powell has produced documents to show Benefield’s qualifications, training and that he was reappointed according to law.
“The county assessor’s office is the only government department that has its own board, which was set up by a smart person years back so no undue political pressure is put on our department,” Powell said. “Our job is to fairly and proportionately give value to Hall County owners’ land.”
Benefield is ready to move forward but feels like he was caught in the middle of the county commission transition.
“I was reappointed in November for a full six years and went to my first meeting on Jan. 5. The next day, all that happened and I found my seat was vacated,” he said. “I don’t know why, and I was completely caught off guard. Now I can continue to do what I’ve done the last nine months.”