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March 27, 2008 Issue

Report points to problems
Recovery efforts ongoing
Storm uncovers vault and remains

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Report points to problems

By Carol McLeod
Staff Writer

A review of the Jefferson County Board of Assessors began Jan. 8 and was recently concluded. A report based on that review, conducted by a three-member panel, was sent from the Georgia Department of Revenue to the county’s board of commissioners on Tuesday, March 18.

The panel consisted of Joseph Wright, a property tax appraiser and instructor with the Local Government Services Division of the Georgia DOR; William Griffin, chairman of the Lee County Board of Assessors; and Darryl Gray, an appraiser with the Emanuel County Board of Assessors.

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The panel interviewed 26 individuals. They talked with Paul Bryan, the county manager; the county commissioners, the county attorney; the board of assessors, staff and a citizen.

All board of assessors members are current with required training, according to the report. Minutes of the meetings of this board consist of an agenda, hand written notes and copies of various materials presented by the chief appraiser, the report stated.

“Based on interviews and the inadequacy of the minutes the PRB (Performance Review Board) believes that the BOA (Board of Assessors) members are not properly reviewing and approving the work of the appraisal staff. The BOA seems to administer whatever the Chief Appraiser recommends rather than taking responsibility for values, schedules and other statutory duties.”

The report states the current number of appraisal staff should be sufficient to carry out the day-to-day duties. Interviews indicated a belief that current pay levels contribute to the county’s inability to attract and keep certified staff.

“This is an ongoing statewide challenge and is not unique to Jefferson County,” the report states, adding that the current pay scale seems comparable to other counties of similar size and geographical location.

The review found, “The other staff appraisers who are certified as either Appraiser I or II level are not being properly managed and trained in the opinion of the PRB.”

Other findings include office space that is barely sufficient; although, the county has provided reliable and sufficient computer software and hardware.

The report recommends a read-only computer be provided for the public as a means to research tax records. This would eliminate the need for staff to assist in this activity.

Other findings include office space that is barely sufficient; although, the county has provided reliable and sufficient computer software and hardware.

The report recommends a read-only computer be provided for the public as a means to research tax records. This would eliminate the need for staff to assist in this activity.

The four vehicles provided for the office are not reliable, according to the report. “The appraisers should have available dependable transportation in order to be efficient in their day-to-day work,” the report states.

Several areas where the board of assessors is not properly adhering to requirements of Georgia law were noted in the report, including inadequately administering homestead exemptions.

Various errors were found in Conservation Use applications, including not meeting timely filing procedures, approving multiple covenants for a single parcel for the same tax year and not collecting taxes and penalties on covenants that have been breached.

“Incorrectly following the appeal process … was a matter of great concern in this review,” the report states. The report also states that complaints have been filed to the DOR stating that the appealing property owner had not been properly notified of the board of assessors’ decisions.

The report states that a physical review of property and reports showed a practice of changing the tax assessments of recently sold properties, without reappraising all others.

“This is an unacceptable practice that distorts the true level of assessment, bias and uniformity in the tax digest,” the report states.

While appraising small parcels of land, the board of assessors has applied only one accessibility and desirability code to all rural parcels, implying that all potential buyers would pay exactly the same for every five-acre tract in the county regardless of road paving, road frontage or view, according to the report, which adds, “… a neighborhood adjustment factor has been applied to just a few single parcels which have recently sold, which may be a further indication of unacceptable assessment methods.”

The report also states, “There was no evidence of timber extraction in the development of the large tract schedules as required by the Appraisers Procedures Manual.”

Additionally, the review found some commercial properties to have extremely low appraised values as compared to surrounding comparable properties.

“The PRB observed one commercial corner-lot upon which a McDonald’s fast food chain was operated valued at $400,” the report states, adding the chief appraiser could not provide an adequate explanation for this.

The report also states, “The personal property appraisal staff may have been directed not to apply a 10 percent penalty to unreturned personal property by the Jefferson County BOA. This is contrary to Georgia law and the rules and regulations of the Georgia Department of Revenue.”

The report recommends that the chief appraiser not be a BOA member, although there is no legal requirement for this. The report states a separation of duties would allow the chief appraiser to better focus on the specific duties of his job.

“It would also enable the BOA to provide the necessary oversight and direction to the chief appraiser,” the report states.

Further recommendations include that board meeting minutes to be adequately obtained and kept and a salary incentive to the staff for achieving each appraisal designation.

The report concludes by stating the board of assessors “has not contributed necessary oversight and guidance or required accountability of staff in the tax administration process. The current contract for revaluation is a step in the right direction, but will be meaningless if staff is not given the proper oversight relating to performance and specific direction so to ensure that the digest is brought into compliance.”

George Rachels, the county’s chief assessor, said on Tuesday that he had read the report.

“Part of the stuff they put in there is not accurate,” he said. “But I really don’t want to comment on it until I’ve had a chance to reread it. The Board of Assessors met yesterday (Monday, March 24) and I’m trying to schedule a meeting between them and the board of commissioners. I’m working with Paul Bryan to schedule that.”

Rachels said he would prefer to wait to comment until after the meeting has taken place.

“The review gave us what we asked for – a better understanding of the operations of the tax assessor’s office. It was informative and pulled no punches,” said County Administrator Paul Bryan.

“It pointed out that we (the commissioners and the Board of Assessors) need to communicate better. We need to work together to correct the issues,” said William Rabun, the county commission’s chairman.

“I don’t think the average person knows what all they do in that office. They have a job. I didn’t realize what all they have to do until we met with the performance review board.”

Bryan added that right now the commission is focusing on the damage from the recent storm, meeting with citizens, FEMA and GEMA.

“We kind of got caught up in the storm,” he said, adding he would like the commission to have time to discuss the report with each other before commenting further. “Actually, we just need to get a feel for where we go from here; meet with the Board of Assessors and come up with a plan,” he said.



Recovery efforts ongoing

By Parish Howard
Editor / Publisher

In Wrens and Matthews tarps are stretched across roofs. Most of the toppled trees have been cut up, removed or burned. Windows have been replaced and lives have begun to be put back together.

At noon on Tuesday, the state and federal agencies designated to help area families and businesses get needed assistance set up at the Mt. Moriah campground and within the first hour, families started to appear.

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According FEMA spokesperson Art Navarro, seven families had registered at the mobile Disaster Recovery Center in Matthews within three hours of the center’s opening.

Navarro said that as soon as his office heard of the presidential declaration which declared the 19-mile swath of damage cut through north Jefferson County by the March 15 tornado a disaster, FEMA teams went to work.

“We sent in our mobile disaster recovery units so that we can begin providing information about FEMA’s products and services to the Jefferson County residents recently afflicted by the tornado.”

Navarro encouraged citizens impacted by the tornado to first call FEMA’s toll free number between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. at (800) 621-3362 to register. Applicants should have their current phone number, address at the time of the disaster and current address, social security number, a general list of damages and losses, and any insurance policy number or agent and company name ready to facilitate the application process.

“FEMA can provide temporary housing assistance to homeowners for up to three months and renters up to a month,” Navarro said. “This can be extended, but that will have to be determined on a case-by-case basis. If anyone has lost their job as a result of the storm, we can provide up to 26 weeks of federal unemployment insurance. There are also grants available that can help with personal property, medical, dental, funeral and other disaster related expenses that may not be covered by insurance.”

Navarro said that storm victims from across Jefferson County can register with FEMA at the Matthews disaster recovery center.

According to a FEMA press release, President Bush’s March 17 declaration made Jefferson County one of seven across the state eligible for individual assistance, like that mentioned above, as well as public assistance, which “reimburses local and state agencies and certain nonprofit agencies for the expenses and damages that occurred during the response and recovery phase of the disaster.”

These public assistance grants can help pay for emergency protective measures such as police overtime and debris clearance on roads and restoring infrastructure to its pre-disaster design.

Representatives from the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) are also on hand in Matthews to provide information on low-interest loans designed to help cover both residential and business losses not covered by insurance.

“I don’t want people to be distracted by the word business in the name,” said SBA Communications Specialist Mark C. Ihenacho. “Historically, 80 percent of our disaster loans have gone to homeowners and renters.”

Ihenacho said that his team is prepared to offer Jefferson County residents home disaster loans, locked in at 2.75 percent, for homeowners or renters to repair or replace disaster damaged real estate or personal property and business physical disaster loans up to $200,000, as low as 4 percent interest, to repair or replace disaster damaged business property, including inventories, supplies, machinery and equipment up to $1.5 million.

He recommends those interested in SBA services first register with FEMA at the toll-free number.

“You don’t even have to settle with your insurance company before you start the process with SBA,” Ihenacho said. “Any money you get from your insurance provider can later be applied directly to your loan.”

Applications for the SBA disaster loans are available at the Matthews disaster response center and can be downloaded at http://www.sba.gov.

The center will be open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. for at least the next week.

“We will be here as long as there is a need,” Ihenacho said.

Mt. Moriah Campground is located at 2665 Mount Moriah Road in Matthews.

Other state and federal services offered to storm victims following the recent disaster include:

· The Farm Service Agency (FSA) announces the Emergency Conservation Program for farms that were effected by the tornado and damaging weather last week. The ECP program is designed to cost share with farm owners and operators on the removal of debris from farmland and to restore permanent fences. Applications may be filed at the Jefferson /Glascock County FSA office in Louisville. The sign-up for the ECP will be April 1 through April 20. For more detailed information and to schedule an appointment call the FSA office at (478) 625-7771, ext. 2.

· USDA Rural Development is also offering Section 504 loan funds to Jefferson County’s very low-income homeowners needing to repair storm damage. The loan provides up to $20,000 at 1 percent fixed for 20 years. Residents can apply through Eugene Love, Rural Development Manager USDA Rural Development, 715 W 6th Street, Waynesboro, GA 30830 or by calling (706) 554-4486.



Storm uncovers vault and remains

By Parish Howard
Editor / Publisher

As its caretaker, Bill Perry knew he would have some cleanup at the Young-Pool Cemetery after the recent tornado. However, he never expected to find a grave uncovered.

“I’ve never seen nothing like it,” Perry said Monday.

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Perry said he discovered a huge old red oak had fallen at the back edge of the cemetery. While it does not appear that the twin trunks landed on any of the headstones, some of which date back into the 1700s, the fall did unearth one of the private cemetery’s inhabitants.

“It’s something else,” Perry said. “You can see how the vault was hand-built with bricks.”

The roots from the tree had grown over and into the vault and when the storm’s winds toppled the tree, the roots peeled back the top of the structure, uncovering the grave itself.

Jefferson County Coroner Edward James said that he and his son collected the remains from the tomb.

“We found most of the skeleton, some clothes, pieces of the casket,” James said. “One of the first things we found was button.

“The bones were definitely old. You had to handle them just so or they would go all to pieces.”

James estimates the hole opened in the ground by the falling tree to be approximately 16 feet across.

“I wanted to show respect for this person, whoever they were,” James said. “I couldn’t let the bones just lie there in the weather.”

Since there was no marker on the grave, it is unclear who exactly it belonged to or just how old it actually is. Most of the tombstones nearest the grave are weathered and undecipherable. However a new marker was placed nearby in 1999 for Revolutionary War soldier Aaron Pool who died in 1803.

Area historian Jeanne Stephens believes the grave could be that of Avery Pool, who her records show moved to the area in 1809.

James is looking into having the bones tested for age.

The cemetery is on property belonging to Bernice E. Young Van Arsdale of Wrens.

“I remember playing in that cemetery when I was a child,” she said Tuesday. “The cemetery was on our family farm and as long as I can remember, there has always been a tree there. It was a big old tree when I was little and I’ll be 94 in July.”

Her mother is buried there, as are her grandparents and grandparents on the Young side.

Her husband, Robert, was buried there in 2006.

James said he plans to rebury the remains near the original burial site once the tree is cut up and the hole opened by the roots is filled in.

“We might not know who it is, but whoever it is, they deserve respect,” James said.




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