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NC5 Investigates: Putnam Property Assessor

Assessor Had Been Warned About Improper Practices

Posted: Updated: Sep 11, 2012 06:03 PM
Ben Hall interviews Rhonda Chaffin Ben Hall interviews Rhonda Chaffin

By Ben Hall
Investigative Reporter

COOKEVILLE, Tenn. -- State auditors told former Putnam County Property Assessor Rhonda Chaffin years ago that she was making changes to the county tax rolls that "were not allowable by state statutes."

NewsChannel 5 Investigates questioned Chaffin last month for undervaluing the properties of wealthy landowners in Putnam County.

After our story, the state issued a review of properties that found Chaffin's office undervalued nearly 200 properties by more than $82 million dating back to 2009.

But the Tennessee Comptroller's Office had blasted Chaffin back in 2003 for doing the very same thing.

The scathing audit stated that she had certified more than 900 changes to the 2001 tax rolls including changes to "market values that relied on the assessor's judgment."   

It added that those changes were inappropriate because she only has authority to certify changes to the tax rolls that involve "clerical mistakes, involving no judgment of, or discretion by, the assessor." 

Chaffin and the Putnam County attorney responded to the 2003 audit by defending the changes. They stated that the changes were needed to clean up the tax rolls.

But the state recommended that Chaffin "only certify changes to the tax rolls that are allowable by state statute."

Read the 2003 audit

In an interview on the Putnam County Courthouse lawn last month, Chaffin told NewsChannel 5 Investigates that she is standing by her more recent changes to the tax rolls -- dating back to 2009.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "You're saying there's nothing wrong with any of these depreciations?"

"No, there's nothing wrong with any of them," Chaffin responded.

But after that interview, the state informed the county that it needed to start sending notices to several prominent Putnam County landowners to collect back taxes.

The state explained that the reason for the back assessment is "excessive depreciation."

Chaffin lost her re-election bid in August -- and the new assessor, Travis Roberts, took over September 1.

"I haven't done any decorating yet," Roberts said, as he showed us around his nearly empty office.

He said the state is helping him reset the value of properties it claims have been depreciated too much by Chaffin's office. 

"I need to rebuild public trust, that's what I need to do," Roberts said.

He also vowed to use the five-member county Board of Equalization more often when a dispute arises over the value of the property. 

The board hears appeals on property values. 

That's the same board that the state encouraged Chaffin to use in the 2003 audit. 

"I will absolutely use the Board of Equalization.  They are put in place for that reason," Roberts said.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates has learned Putnam County developer Charles Soard owes more in back taxes than anyone else.  The county is sending him tax bills totaling more than $500,000. 

It includes more than $124,000 in penalties and late fees for properties going back to 2009.

"I'm sure that there are a lot of citizens of Putnam County that feel deceived," Roberts said.

He believes they feel deceived because the county just passed a new property tax increase. 

Overall, the county stands to gain more than $1.1 million in back taxes and penalties. That amount is nearly half what the new property tax increase will generate.

"I imagine they wouldn't have to raise it that much had this not happened," Roberts said.

Landowners have 60 days to appeal their tax bills to the state -- so it is possible the county will not collect the full amount.

Email: bhall@newschannel5.com

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