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Developer's property tax appeals may be dropped for failure to pay

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By Damon Lawrence

Developer Matt Caldwell is in danger of having his property appeals dismissed for failing to pay property taxes.
Caldwell, who has developed high-end properties in Kingston, has appeals pending with the State Board of Equalization for the 2010, 2011 and 2012 tax years.

Barry Cofer, a deputy assessor with the Roane County Property Assessor’s Office, filed a motion to dismiss because of Caldwell’s unpaid taxes. The issue was discussed during a status conference at the Roane County Courthouse last week.   

“Tennessee statute requires that the payment of delinquent taxes be taken care of, and that’s any delinquent taxes, on subject property prior to proceeding with appeal,” Administrative Judge J. Richard Collier said.

“That statute was amended several years ago to include the ability of the county or the city to file a motion to dismiss based upon failure to pay delinquent taxes.”

A lot of the delinquencies are centered around Caldwell’s Highland Reserve development along Watts Bar Lake.
His Kingston developments include Ladd Landing, Center Farm and Brentwood Landing.

Caldwell said he reached agreements on his appeals with former property assessor Teresa Kirkham and her chief appraiser, Melvin Moore.  

“We went through values, comps, et cetera, and we had agreed orders before we had the first appeals hearing on 193 of these properties,” Caldwell said. “I guess Mr. Cofer has made the decision that wasn’t the position of the former property assessor’s office.”

Kirkham lost her re-election bid to David Morgan last year. Moore is no longer employed with the assessor’s office.    
“After I took over for Mr. Moore, I discovered that most of the cases that he was handling, he was not following the TCA code on those delinquent taxes and bringing them to light to the State Board of Equalization,” Cofer said.

Cofer added that Moore “held a bunch” of Caldwell appeals on Kirkham’s desk after the agreements were made.

“The rest of them that were sitting on her desk were waiting on the delinquent taxes to be paid, of which the majority of those are still waiting on ’09, ’10 and ’11 taxes to be paid,” Cofer said.  

“But why the request for dismissal vs. just a continuance until we can do it as a taxpayer?” Caldwell asked.

“One is the extensiveness of the size of the case,” Cofer responded. “Two, we are on a deadline ourself as the assessor’s office. We can’t just keep dragging out appeals for years upon years.”

Another reason is the assessor’s office has Robert Lee helping on other appeals. Lee is general counsel for the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury. He’s taken a hard line stance that appeals should be dismissed in cases where the property owner has delinquent taxes.  

“The county and state feel certain under the statute,” Lee said during a hearing with lawyers who represent property owners involved with litigation against TVA over the ash spill. “It requires the undisputed portion of the property tax be paid and no delinquent taxes be accrued.”

If that position is taken with other property owners and not Caldwell, the property assessor’s office could find itself in a bad spot.   

“Having the state staff attorney involved, he’s having to request this in other cases, so to break precedent with one, we’d have to break precedent with all,” Cofer said.

Caldwell reiterated the agreement he said he had with Kirkham and Moore.  

“The property assessor’s office has taken the position they want to dismiss all of those agreed orders, and how does that affect the ’11 and ’12 and ’13 and ’14 tax numbers?” he asked. “Are you going to revert back to the old values that you agreed were wrong values?”

“It’s the previous administration that made those,” Cofer said.

“Did you work in that administration?” Caldwell asked.
“I worked in that administration,” Cofer responded. “I did not work directly with any of those appeals at that time. Melvin handled those appeals.”

Cofer also said having the appeals continue to wallow through the process while the taxes are not paid hurts the county’s bottom line.

“The county’s operating on a budget based off of the total appraisal,” he said. “You’re taking these 122 parcels completely out of the tax system, so it’s removing that income from the county.”

Collier decided to hold the county’s motion to dismiss in abeyance for the time being.

“The assessor’s office will work with you as much as we’re allowed to do by law,” Morgan said.

“Fair enough,” Caldwell responded.