The Liberty County Commission has a year to decide four ad valorem tax-refund requests that were argued before it Thursday.
The Courier previously reported on the legal grounds for such refunds and spoke with Chief Appraiser Glenda Roberts on behalf of the Board of Assessors, which recommended no refunds in each case.
The petitioners each had 10 minutes to present their cases during the hearing, and Roberts and Tax Commissioner Virgil Jones were allowed rebuttals. Commissioners could also ask questions.
Chairman Donald Lovette and commissioners Marion Stevens Sr., Connie Thrift and Pat Bowen were present. Justin Frasier, Gary Gilliard and Eddie Walden were not.
Debra Dykes was requesting refunds for three property tracts for tax years 2009 and 2010. The refund requests in Dykes’ petition are $1,375 and $1,495 for 2009 and 2010 on two adjoining Leroy Coffer tracts.
Another request seeks $6,266 and $10,820 on a Hall Street property in the same years. It also seeks about $4,337 in penalties and interest related to the Hall Street property.
Dykes said several times that her properties were “over taxed.”
“The assessors over 2009, 2010 and 2011, if you total up the over-amount that the county has got me wrongly taxed at, it’s close to $2 million,” Dykes said, adding that was on the Hall Street property only.
For those years, she said, she was over-taxed with an omission from someone in the tax assessors’ office.
Prior to the widening of Leroy Coffer Highway, the property had five rental duplexes. However, after Dykes sold easements to the state DOT for widening, there was not enough room for parking, she said.
The structures were vacant for some time, and Dykes said she authorized area residents to remove salvage items, which devalued the property. Later, the buildings were demolished.
Dykes acknowledged she missed the appeal period because she was undergoing medical operations in Columbus and in Alabama. Her son and a manager were managing the properties and did not notice the assessment did not account for the demolitions.
The board of assessors granted her a late appeal, and they resolved the issue for 2011, though they did not address penalties and interest, Dykes said. However, Roberts said there was no mention of prior years, while Dykes contends that she did mention those years.
Roberts said the assessor office taxed for the buildings because no permits were issued for the demolitions so her office had no notice.
Stevens asked Dykes whether she had advised anyone from the county about the demolitions. Dykes said she spoke about it several times with Jones.
Roberts said the county does not have any documentation.
At one point, Dykes asserted that County Administrator Joey Brown told her she had legal grounds for a refund and asked him to help explain it. Brown said he told her she was entitled to a hearing, not necessarily a refund.
In a Friday call to the Courier, however, Dykes asserted that Brown assured her she was due a refund.
“Joey had already figured it out with Kelly Davis. Kelly said, ‘Yes, definitely she is due, she is overpaid, she is due,’” Dykes said Friday.
Dykes said Friday that Brown and Jones spoke with her by phone in November 2011 and offered to resolve the issue quickly.
“[Brown] said Debbie, if it was me, this is what I would do. … He said you can only do it for three years, 2009, 2010, 2011 … he said let’s take 2009, 2010 and put them two together, and he said just by glancing over the figures that Virgil’s got right here … it looks to me like you’ve got well over $20,000 that should be coming back to you, right now as we speak,” Dykes said.
Despite the conversation, Dykes said she has not received a refund.
After the meeting, Brown and Roberts both said they were unfamiliar with the multi-million dollar figures Dykes cited.
Liberty County Development Authority CEO Ron Tolley said its case should not be treated as a matter of reporting but rather as a mistake made by a private business.
“Were this not such a serious matter, we would probably both find it rather ironic that two government bodies that historically work closely with one another for the benefit of Liberty County find themselves across the table from each other because of a mistake that was made by a private firm, Bioagra, that no longer exists,” Tolley said.
The assessors office said it continued to tax property that belonged to Bioagra, an LCDA tenant that defaulted, because the business’ departure was not reported.
Tolley said although Bioagra brought in the property, it became property of the LCDA once the items were “permanently affixed” to the LCDA-owned building, according to the terms of the lease. Therefore, he argued, the property was erroneously taxed for all years it was on the digest.
He referenced a letter with input from attorney Kelly Davis that contained legal citations.
First, Tolley argued that property owned by the LCDA is tax-exempt. Second, he reiterated the LCDA legally owned the fixtures on which taxes were billed. Third, he said the authority sold the fixtures. Fourth, the authority voluntarily paid taxes it did not owe.
Copies of checks from the LCDA to the tax commissioner indicate payments of $93,254 for Bioagra ad valorem taxes owed in 2007, 2008 and 2009, and another payment of $46,063 for taxes, penalties and interest for 2010 and 2011.
Tolley added that in years on the job, the authority has never reported its properties.
“I hear you say how many years you’ve been here, but in all those years does it make it right?” Stevens asked. He also asked whether the LCDA has handed over leases for existing industries to the assessors office.
LCDA director of finance and administration Carmen Cole said she had not received requests for such leases but would provide them.
Thrift and Lovette brought up the quandary about one attorney representing three sides in the matter.
Davis serves as counsel for the county, the development authority and the board of assessors.
“I don’t think when this began anybody anticipated there would be so many questions,” Davis said. He added that he has arranged for Jim Smith, of Ratcliffe & Smith, to step in as a conflict counsel if the board feels the need to consult an independent attorney.
Becky Wells Carter
Atlantic Judicial Circuit District Attorney Tom Durden presented the case on behalf of his wife, Becky Durden. The property is deeded to her under the name Becky Wells Carter.
Durden said the couple does not dispute that they missed their appeal period. However, they were questioning the increase in fair market value, which went from about $14,300 one year to $174,400 the next.
Durden said the 2.18 acres is landlocked behind a commercial property on 15th Street and is zoned as agricultural.
“Nothing’s been done to the property, there’s been no request for rezoning, but if you look on the property record card, it says that it was zoned A-1, down there if I’m reading this right, it was appraised as 15th Street, commercial – small,” Durden said.
Roberts said all land on 15th Street was reappraised for the 2012 tax year.
“Just like with all of the other properties, she was notified of that increase in property value by means of an assessment notice,” Roberts said.
Due to nearby commercial properties, Roberts said, the assessors and an appraiser saw the property as a potential commercial property. Because it is landlocked, however, it received a 20 percent reduction in value.
The commission reacted with surprise to the news that the designation for land use can change without the property being rezoned.
Thrift asked whether many people in the area had filed appeals. Roberts said there were two other appeals in the area that were resolved.
“So all those parcels on 15th Street are being taxed as commercial, even though it’s not zoned — we didn’t zone it — none of them zoned it,” Thrift said. “Your office just assumed it could be commercial — that could be years down the road.”
Holiday Inn Express employee Margit Velasco presented a request on behalf of Mukesh Patel, the hotel’s franchisee.
She said she presented an amended request to the commissioners, and after the meeting Brown provided a copy of a fax transmitted Thursday afternoon.
Her basis for request was that the property cards since 2002 list the property as a masonry load-bearing construction, when in reality it is a less valuable construction type flanked with a brick façade.
“Nobody ever thought about having any problem with it until last year in the May time frame when Mr. Mukesh Patel and Mr. San Patel compared these cards with that of the Fairfield Inn, and the Fairfield Inn was taxed considerably lower per year.”
Prior assessments on the hotel ran between $40,000 and $42,000 each year. However, after they filed an appeal for the 2012 tax year, the assessment was adjusted to $36,672, she said. Her amended request was to have the bills recalculated according to the updated construction grade and have the difference applied toward the franchise’s tax credit.
Roberts said Velasco did, in fact, make a timely appeal for the 2012 tax year but that she did not seek appeals through the board of assessors for the previous years.
Velasco also asserted that the tax assessors office lost their appeal paperwork and made several errors in the process of responding to appeals and requests.
“I have to tell you, this is a very nice lady, but I have little faith in our tax assessors office,” Velasco said. “The way this was handled, how many times it was lost, the wrong hotel was assessed, which, we got a totally wrong bill.”
During the hearing, Roberts did not comment on Velasco’s point about the construction.
The Courier asked Roberts Friday whether the property had been previously billed according to the wrong code.
“I can’t necessarily say it was the wrong construction grade,” she said. “Appraisal practices and appraiser opinion is what changes, and once the appraiser that’s assigned to that area now reviewed that property, they made an adjustment to the hotel as a whole … you have to consider depreciation and you have to consider the age of the structure itself, so there were a lot of factors that went into the overall adjustment of the hotel. That was a part of it, but that’s not the only part.”