Apartment Complexes Disappear From Putnam Tax Rolls
Aug 27, 2012 08:08 PM
By Ben Hall Investigative Reporter
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. -- Putnam County just passed a property tax increase, but a NewsChannel 5 investigation raises questions about why some large properties were missing from the county tax rolls.
Rhonda Chaffin has been Putnam County's property assessor since 1999. She just lost re-election and is standing by the work she has done.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates caught up with her in front of the courthouse in Cookeville and asked, "Are you helping people pay less in property taxes?"
"No, that is not even a possibility," Chaffin responded.
Still, our investigation discovered her office left large apartment complexes, owned by a prominent landlord, off the tax rolls.
In 2010, Chaffin's office charged the owner of a $4.5 million apartment complex at 3800 Gainesboro Grade, just outside Cookeville, only $515 in property taxes.
"It's very deliberate what has happened as far as these 18 buildings being deleted from the tax rolls," said Ellen White, who used to work in the property assessor's office.
White was fired, she said, after voicing concerns about how the office was run.
The Gainesboro Grade Apartments are owned by Charles Soard, who owns numerous properties in Putnam County.
White said the apartments were deleted from the tax rolls.
As a result, Soard only paid the for the value of the land. Records show the apartments were finished years ago.
"This reflects that in September 2008, the apartments were completed and were occupied with renters," said White as she looked at a real estate appraisal card from the assessor's office.
The county finally billed Soard for the apartments in 2011, and he paid more than $46,000.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Rhonda Chaffin, "How are entire apartment complexes not on the tax rolls?
Chaffin responded, "One problem -- that's what we had."
The property assessor said it was an honest mistake.
After we began asking questions, she personally got a $39,600 check from Charles Soard for tax year 2010 and gave it to the county.
For 2009, he has still just paid for land.
"It was overlooked -- we didn't catch it," Chaffin said. "We made a mistake. We made up for it. He paid the taxes, and it's done."
But records show the apartments were back off the tax rolls earlier this year, something Chaffin denies.
The apartments were put back on the rolls after we started asking questions.
And we found even more examples.
Joshua Clapp moved into a Soard apartment building at 3261 Hilham Rd. at the start of 2011. His neighbor Lauren Dixon moved in the year before.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked her, "When did you move in here?
"It was August of 2010," Dixon responded.
But Chaffin's office has never billed Soard for those apartments. which the state valued at $3.5 million.
Soard paid just over $300 in 2010 and 2011 -- for the value of the land.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Ellen White, "What possible explanation can there be for this?"
"I have none," White answered. "To me, there is no explanation as to how they were just taken off the tax roll."
White supervised employees that visited the complex in March of 2011 and listed it as occupied.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Rhonda Chaffin, "What about Hilham Road?"
Chaffin responded, "You think it was done one year, I think it was done another year."
Chaffin said it wasn't on the tax rolls in 2011 because it wasn't finished.
But the Putnam County Department of Building Codes listed all buildings in the complex finished by late 2010 and issued its final Certificate of Occupancy in November of 2010.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates noted, "There were police reports. Police went out there in 2010."
"But the whole complex wasn't finished," Chaffin said.
We countered, "According to Codes, it was."
"All 18 buildings?" Chaffin asked.
"All 18 buildings," NewsChannel 5 Investigates responded.
Chaffin said she doubted that was the case.
But there's no doubt the county needs the money.
High school students are now crammed into classrooms at an elementary school because the high school was deemed a fire hazard.
Ellen White said that apartments don't just vanish from the tax rolls.
So how did this happen?
"Someone had to do it," White said.
Minutes after we caught up with Chaffin, her attorney called.
Chaffin said into the phone, " I am in the courthouse yard with NewsChannel 5 in my face." Then, she quickly ended the interview. She walked to her car and closed the door as NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked questions.
Last week, Chaffin turned signing power in her office over to a deputy assessor.
Investigators with the Tennessee Division of Property Assessment just completed a review of Putnam County properties and found Chaffin's office undervalued nearly 200 properties dating back to 2009.
Dozens of parcels are owned by Charles Soard. Most of the other properties are owned by prominent landowners in the county.
The county is now making plans to collect taxes on all those properties. One official said the county stands to gain nearly $1 million.
The newly elected Property Assessor, Travis Roberts, takes over September 1.
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