BLUE RIDGE, Ga. – In a called meeting of the Fannin County Board of Assessors (BOA) Tuesday, Feb. 27, to forward an appeal to Superior Court, Chairman Lane Bishop shared with the board that he would not be reappointed at the Board of Commissioners (BOC) meeting, which followed later that evening. At the commissioners meeting, local business owner Angelina Powell was appointed unanimously by the commissioners to replace Bishop on the BOA following a motion from Fannin County BOC Chairman Stan Helton and a second from Post 2 Commissioner Larry Joe Sosebee.
According to Bishop, his term expires Feb. 28. Bishop, who served on the assessors board for over three years, took time to issue a statement to BOA members Janie Bearden and Mark Henson as well as county Chief Appraiser Dawn Cochran and BOA secretary Heather Wright. BOA members Troy Junnier and Anthony Holloway were not present for the called meeting.
“I talked to Stan Helton yesterday (Feb. 26) and he is not going to reappoint me to this board. I asked him why and he said he didn’t have to explain anything to me. And I said, ‘Stan, at least give me one more year because there’s two items that I want to finish. ‘One of them is our 10,000 (parcels in the county yet to be reappraised).’ I said I want to see that that’s done. That’s been my baby all this time. He said, ‘No.’ His mind was made up … I told him he had no reason not to reappoint me. Well, he does have a reason though. He’s got several reasons that is nothing but pure backstabbing politics in Fannin County. That’s why I’m not being reappointed, and I want the tax payers to know it. And they’re going to know it … I wanted to announce it to this board. I wanted to thank you (Bearden and Henson) for being on the board … and I hope you all will continue trying to run this board honestly, honestly for the tax payers of Fannin County. It was not run that way when we first took it over and Janie (Bearden) knows it and I know it and a lot of us know this. It is now being run honest and I think we’ve got some honest people on it. There’s some politics in it, yes. I’m very much aware of the politics. There are dirty, backstabbing politics and that’s why I’m being removed … I wish I could be a little softer in my remarks, but I don’t think so because Stan (Helton) said he hoped there were no hard feelings. I told him there were some bad hard feelings and because I know why I’m being removed and it’s wrong … plain wrong. He and Larry Joe Sosebee, I hope, will answer for what they’re doing to me.”
In the public eye at least, relations have seemed somewhat strained between the Board of Assessors and Board of Commissioners for the past six months. At an all-day workshop Sept. 20, 2017, at which the commissioners met with representatives from all county departments to discuss their respective 2018 budgets, Bishop and Bearden questioned the recent appointments of Henson and Junnier and were met with a firm rebuttal from Chairman Helton. Those appointments expanded the BOA from three members to five.
In early December, just as the commissioners were finalizing all revisions to the county’s proposed 2018 budget, the BOA publicly questioned the commissioners’ recommended, and ultimately approved, 2018 budget of $848,265 for the Board of Assessors. The assessors requested budget was $977,370.
Following the budget talks, the BOA experienced mechanical troubles with two vehicles in its six-vehicle fleet in January rendering them both inoperable, and Junnier spoke on behalf of the BOA at the Jan. 29 Board of Commissioners meeting to lobby for the purchase of two replacement vehicles. During that session, Chairman Helton questioned some end-of-the-year purchases made by the tax assessors department, and Post 1 Commissioner Earl Johnson told Junnier that if the commissioners approved the purchases, he did not want to hear about the problems of the tax assessors’ vehicle fleet again while he was in office. Ultimately, the commissioners did approve the purchase of two 2016 Ford Escapes in the amount of $20,000 each at their Feb. 13 meeting.
In a post-meeting interview with Bishop Tuesday, the tax assessors chairman pointed to Commissioner Sosebee as the origin of contention against him from the Board of Commissioners. Bishop said in addition to the reappraisal of the 10,000 parcels, he had hoped to stay on the BOA long enough to be sure a relapse did not occur within the tax assessors department: “The main thing is that the Board (of Assessors) does not go back to the ‘good ole boy’ syndrome and start favoring some of the more wealthy people in this county.”
Bishop referred back to the period before he joined the BOA when it was alleged that several Fannin County residents received favors from within the tax assessors department by not having their tax bills recorded and added to the tax digest.
“This (department) was corrupted. It was the ‘good ole boys’ syndrome going right here in this tax office,” Bishop stated. “When we took over this office within the first two weeks or so, we added $10 million to the digest. Now where do you think that $10 million came from? It came from returns that had never been put on the digest.”
Bishop along with former BOA members Nathan Henson and Sonia Smith replaced the former BOA in May 2014 after that tax assessors board was removed entirely by the Board of Commissioners upon the recommendation of Appalachian Judicial Circuit Superior Court Judge Brenda Weaver due to departmental deficiencies. According to Bishop, one of the new BOA’s first moves then was to terminate two tax assessor employees in an effort to correct the deficiencies within the department.
“Well, one of those people happened to be a friend of Larry Joe Sosebee,” Bishop said, “and he’s held that against me ever since I’ve been on this board.”
As far as his relationship with Helton, Bishop said, “Stan Helton ain’t got one thing against me except what he’s been told.”
Concerning the reasoning for not reappointing Bishop, Helton, in a follow-up interview Tuesday, stated, “Well, I think I did give (Bishop) reason. Our board – me and the other two commissioners – are unanimous in that we feel that that office (tax assessors department) has gotten too big, and the budget that is there now is far in excess of our surrounding counties and it needs to go in the other direction.”
Helton pointed out the consent order from the state Department of Revenue was lifted in August of last year. “There’s no reason for that department to keep getting bigger or even be the size it is now. It’s too big,” Helton added.
The commission chairman further explained he feels the duties of the tax assessors office can still be accomplished with a smaller staff but that any future potential reductions would occur “slowly, over time.”
“We’re not talking about slashing the thing in half immediately,” Helton stated.
Helton also mentioned he felt a degree of resistance from the BOA regarding a downsizing movement and said, “I’m going to appoint someone who agrees with me.”
When asked about the BOA’s continued concern that a reduction in staff and/or budget could result in a relapse to the period leading up to state’s previous consent order on the BOA, Helton replied, “I do not accept that. Not at all. Because if people are going to do their job, that will not happen. And we will make sure, the Board of Commissioners will make sure that that does not happen … I don’t accept that attitude. I do not. And there are some real drastic things we could do.”
That “drastic” option Helton proposed, though he clarified he did not favor, would be to contract an independent company to do field appraisals and property evaluations. “We do have that option, (but) I don’t want to do that,” Helton added, saying he has always favored hiring locally.
“What I don’t accept is why our (tax assessors’) budget is 25 percent higher than what Gilmer (County’s) was, almost twice Pickens (County), and three times Union County. And we’re not talking about apples to oranges. We’re talking about counties that have similar numbers as far as properties that have to be appraised, demographics. I mean it’s too close,” Helton continued. “It’s not going to stay the biggest, most expensive budget in the four counties that surround us. It’s not going to stay that way.”
In a Wednesday morning interview, Commissioner Sosebee responded to Bishop’s claim that the lack of reappointment by the Board of Commissioners was a retaliatory tactic stemming from Sosebee. While Sosebee admitted he did have friends who worked within the tax assessors department years ago and who were terminated shortly after Bishop took office, the commissioner added, “That’s all water under the bridge.”
“I have never had any animosity toward Bishop or the BOA,” Sosebee explained. “If I did have any animosity, I would have gotten rid of Bearden.”
Instead, Bearden was reappointed to the BOA by the Board of Commissioners, as Sosebee’s personal appointment, at the Feb. 13 BOC meeting.
“This is not a personal vendetta,” Sosebee stated. “If (Bishop) feels that way, I’m sorry.”
Sosebee also stated the appointment of Powell at the BOC meeting Tuesday evening instead of the reappointment of Bishop came as a shock to him and denied influencing Helton in any way ahead of the decision.
“I never influenced Helton (on the move),” Sosebee said. “Mr. Helton is not one who is easily influenced by anyone. I had nothing to do with it.”