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Positive change still needs to be transparent

Positive change still needs to be transparent

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Brace yourselves, you are in for a conundrum.

I find myself in the position of taking to task a decision I actually see as full of merits. But as with almost every column I can remember writing that took issue with some action of the Powhatan County Board of Supervisors, this is about how they did something, not what they did.

On April 19, the board of supervisors voted unanimously to pass a resolution that created a department of real estate assessment. There are three key factors to know about this resolution, and, again, I don’t have an issue with any of them.

First, the resolution establishes that by creating the department, they would be bringing the assessment process in-house. Since at least 2014, an outside company called Wampler Eames Appraisal Group Ltd. has been doing Powhatan’s assessments.

Second, the resolution sets that the county is going to an annual assessment process beginning in 2022. Prior to this decision, Powhatan’s assessment was done every two years.

Third – and this is the one that has caused some friction – the board voted to place the new department under control of the county administrator, Ned Smither.

I say this caused friction because Jamie Timberlake, commissioner of the revenue, argued that the new office should be housed within his office. If you saw the April 21 edition of Powhatan Today, you may have read a lengthy letter to the editor from Timberlake arguing his case. You can read some of his argument in the news story on 1A. The main breakdown is he argued that it is a power set out in the Constitution of Virginia and that, as an elected officer, he has direct accountability to residents.

In his letter, he also mentioned that he has a financial plan for having the assessor’s office within his office that would cost less than the plan laid out by Smither.

Here is the thing, none of the three main points of the resolution was a surprise. The board has had many, many budget meetings and workshops this spring and it has come up numerous times. It is even mentioned in some of my budget stories.

But that is my first point. The creation of the assessor’s office has always been talked about in the context of the fiscal year FY2022 budget, which has not been adopted. It has not even had its public hearing, which is scheduled to take place on May 3.

At the request of the board, Smither laid out the expected cost of having an in-house assessment office over an independent appraiser at the April 2 workshop. In the 10-year estimate, the independent appraiser would cost the county $110,000 in FY2022 and go up every year, reaching $143,525 in FY2031.

An in-house department with salaries, benefits, and all of the accompanying costs of doing annual assessments would be significantly more. The fledgling office, which would still be hiring staff, would cost $278,750 in FY2022 but quickly build steam, reaching $603,729 in FY2031. There are benefits the county gets to offset the cost difference that the board considered, which you can read about in the news story.

I also wonder why, if Timberlake, who is a constitutional officer and a department head thoroughly knowledgeable about the assessment process, did have an alternative plan that could save the county money, why wasn’t he invited to share it in any of the meetings? Most of the time when he spoke in a meeting or workshop it was because he interjected himself in the conversation because of knowledge he had or he stood up during the public comment period, as he did last week.

You don’t have to like one another, but if you are truly representing your constituents, you need to explore all valid options that could be in their best interest. Plus, listening costs nothing.

With what limited knowledge I have gleaned about the assessment process in the last few years, I believe, as the board did, obviously, that the benefits of an in-house department have the potential to outweigh the costs, regardless of who came up with the plan.

But I also believe that any decision that costs Powhatan residents almost $3.74 million in incremental costs over the next 10 years (the amount over what they would have spent for the independent appraiser anyway) is still a decision to be made in full view of the public eye.

That brings me to my next point. This decision was made at a workshop, and as such did not have to be advertised. I am not looking for revenue for this newspaper; I am talking about transparency. In the spirit of openness regarding such a vital change to the assessment process, the issue deserved a public hearing.

I am not saying you can’t get things done in a workshop. Heck, only a few weeks earlier the board voted out of the blue at a workshop to significantly lower the tax rate for November 2021, and I think we can all agree that is a great thing.

If it was going to be weeks until they met again and I had heard a substantial reason for a sense of urgency, maybe I could see why this vote was taken at last week’s workshop. But if there was a sense of urgency, it was not communicated before the vote. And considering the board had a regularly scheduled meeting on April 26, as well as more meetings and workshops in May, any delay on a vote did not have to be significant to still let the public know about it. 

Here I am going to own my part in a failure to communicate. The meeting budget came out on April 14, which means it was too late to put something in print. However, I could have mentioned something on Facebook, especially after I saw Timberlake’s letter to the editor. I know all of our readers are not on Facebook, but it still might have brought a little more awareness.

Regardless of the merits or the wisdom of having an in-house assessor’s office, creating a brand new department that will cost the county hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to operate – more than a penny on the tax rate by its second year – is a decision worthy of more acknowledgement and transparency.

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