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Martin audit details released
Feb 10, 2005 12:00 am
Former property assessor Jimmy Carter Martin saw the tax assessments on three of his properties fall $55,000 just one week before leaving office, records show.
At the same time, the value of property owned by Martin's sister was lowered by over $4,000, according to county appraisal records reviewed by The Lebanon Democrat.
The county's annual audit by the state comptroller's office released earlier this week cited Martin's office for improperly decreasing the property values on 38 parcels of land, including three he owns. In his official response to the auditor's findings, Martin denied any impropriety and maintained he was following state guidelines.
However, a survey of appraisal records examined by the comptroller's office show in the three weeks between the Aug. 6 election and Sept. 1, when current Property Assessor Jimmy Locke took office, Martin's staff readjusted the values of 169 pieces of property.
A list of the properties examined by the comptroller obtained by The Lebanon Democrat from the property assessor's office identified three properties owned by Martin and a fourth, located at 326 S. Greenwood St., as owned by his sister, Becky Martin. The value of that property was readjusted to $58,700 from $63,100, a decrease of $4,400.
On the same day – Aug. 27 – the values of the three properties owned by Martin himself were lowered, with appraisal records reflecting the total decrease at $54,600. The three sites are located at 731 N. Cumberland St., 419 Highland Court and 119 Cherry Street.
The North Cumberland property dropped in value from $99,300 to $52,900, a $46,400 decrease; the Highland Court site dropped in value from $54,900 to $51,400, a $3,500 decrease; and the Cherry Street property decreased in value from $51,700 to $47,000, a $4,700 decrease.
Several familiar names believed to be Martin supporters also appear to have enjoyed property value decreases before the longtime political figure left office, the records show.
Among them is former Lebanon City Councilor Johnny Knowles, who saw his property value on West Spring Street decrease from $159,000 to $125,000 – a $34,400 drop – on Aug. 9, three days after election day. An attempt to contact Knowles on Tuesday was unsuccessful, with an employee of his office saying the former councilor was out of town.
Locke said he also believes Martin's opponents received the opposite treatment, gaining higher property values – and thus higher tax bills – as a result of the final-month appraisals.
Locke said several local residents who supported his campaign appeared to have made it into the list with higher-than-original appraisals.
"I know that several people who had my yard signs in their yards ended up with higher appraisals," Locke said.
The auditors' findings have started a flurry of paperwork making its way from Locke's office to the office of the County Trustee, where corrections are being made to county tax rolls, he said.
Finance Director Ron Gilbert said the audit findings regarding property assessments confirmed fears he expressed to Finance Committee Chairman Rusty Thompson about one year ago.
"When it came to our overall growth, the rate of the increase in property values and assessments just didn't seem to be keeping up," he said. "It's not that it wasn't growing, it just wasn't growing as fast as everything else."
Thompson recalled Gilbert's comments, saying the finance chief left him convinced "property assessments appeared to be losing ground."
"It wasn't like we had a critical situation, but I think it's something we were both interested in getting to the bottom of; I think we both had some concerns there," Thompson said.
However he noted auditors have "caught and corrected" any alleged problems "without any loss to the taxpayers."
"There may have been some issues in that office but I think the situation has been rectified," Thompson said. "It may be best just to move forward from this point."
The audit, released Monday, said the 38 properties questioned by auditors were decreased "as a result of improper adjustments to the appraisal records" and said the sites showed no "physical changes" to justify such decreases in value.
In his official response to the audit findings Martin said any changes resulted from "the schedule set forth by the state Department of Assessments."
"These were done by the office after they were brought to our attention and checked on the property card. as far as any parcel that I had any interest in, I am aware of only one parcel. That parcel had been changed for improvements that were not there and for office space that was actually a storage room," Martin's response concluded.
However in its rebuttal auditors said assessments "should not be changed based on the reevaluation of individual properties, except during the countywide reappraisal program."
The audit also alleged Martin failed to prorate new construction onto county tax rolls in a timely manner, which Locke had said shortly after taking office appeared to be costing the county substantial revenue each year.
Martin, who now works in Wilson County Court Clerk Jim Goodall's office, could not be reached for comment at his county office on Monday. A Democrat reporter also went to Goodall's office Tuesday but was unable to locate Martin.
Senior Staff Writer Brooks Franklin can be reached at 444-3952 ext. 14 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.