Skip to main contentSkip to main content
You have permission to edit this article.
Edit

Powhatan County Board of Supervisors divided on change to assessor’s office

  • 0
Powhatan County Board of Supervisors divided on change to assessor’s office

Commissioner of the revenue Jamie Timberlake speaks with the Powhatan County Board of Supervisors as members are deciding on April 25 whether to move the function of the assessor’s office back under his control.

POWHATAN – Almost a year to the day after the Powhatan County Board of Supervisors created an independent internal office of assessment under the county administrator’s control, the board members have turned the function over to the commissioner of the revenue in a highly charged, split decision.

During the board’s meeting on Monday, April 25, the supervisors voted 3-2 in favor of making Jamie Timberlake, the county’s commissioner of the revenue, the chief assessor, paving the way to move the function of the assessment office under his control. Reaching that decision took up half of the three-hour-and-10-minute meeting.

David Williams, who represents District 1; Steve McClung, District 2, and Bill Cox, District 4, voted in favor of this change. Chair Mike Byerly, District 3, and Karin Carmack, voted against.

Last week’s vote came just about a year after a unanimous decision by the board on April 19, 2021, to establish a department of real estate assessment that would report to county administrator Ned Smither. McClung did not participate in that vote as he had not been elected yet.

The 2021 decision created the department using an ordinance change, so to undo that decision will require another ordinance, necessitating an advertised public hearing before the change can be made, county attorney Tom Lacheney explained. But he told the board he was comfortable with the supervisors voting to establish Timberlake as the chief assessor to allow him to immediately begin work on the assessments considering the looming deadlines of the first calendar year 2022 tax bills going out in May.

The item on the agenda under which this decision took place was listed as a “review of establishment of reassessment office,” so it was not clear that a decision would be made that night, and Carmack even asked for a workshop on the topic at one point. Because of the timing, Timberlake told the board if they were going to make a change they needed to do it that night or consider asking for an extension on taxes.

The ultimate decision to make the change was preceded by a 95-minute discussion that started with Smither giving a presentation on a timeline of events in the last year with regard to the office of assessment but was dominated by Williams spending more than 40 minutes reading emails. The overarching message of the emails was to openly question the credentials and work ethic of Donna Prince, the county’s chief assessor, based on her previous employment as well as Smither’s decision to hire her.

Prince was offered and accepted the job of chief assessor on Feb. 24 and began work on March 1. However, Smither confirmed on April 26 that Prince had given her resignation the night before after the meeting ended.

Timberlake got the ball rolling on the timeline of events that culminated at the April 25 decision by sending an email exclusively to board members on Feb. 28 questioning Prince’s credentials. However, he did turn to her after Williams’ 40-minute monologue and apologized that she had to go through that experience in public.

“I came out to defend Team Powhatan the citizens, not Team Powhatan the five of you,” he said, gesturing to the board,” and I’m sorry to Ms. Prince that it had to go like this.”

The remaining 30-minute discussion that followed touched on a wide range of topics, including issues that plagued the establishment of the assessor’s office; fear of what this kind of treatment of staff by supervisors would do to recruitment and retention efforts; questioning whether Timberlake was prepared to take over the assessor’s office function with such a time crunch looming; the general dysfunction that has developed between board members since they took office, and the mechanics of how they legally needed to proceed with the Monday night vote and subsequent ordinance change.

Several people also spoke during the two public comment periods. A few of the comments were in support of the assessment functioning going to the commissioner’s office, including the commissioner of the revenues from Stafford and Fauquier counties. An assessor from Goochland advocated for keeping it independent. At the end of the meeting, one speaker said the conversation needed to happen but the information about Prince should have been said in a closed session while another speaker was upset about the idea of an incomplete employment application.

A perfect storm

In the latter half of the discussion, Byerly called the situation with the assessor’s office a “perfect storm,” referencing the timeline of events in the past year, all building up to last week. Smither outlined the timeline in his presentation, which also touched on the struggles the process faced during that time.

At the start of the presentation, he made a point that was reiterated many times throughout the discussion – that everybody agreed in 2021 that Powhatan County needed to go from having an outside contractor doing the reassessment every two years to having an in-house department perform one annually. The difference in opinion, Smither said, was in who would have control of the office, the county administrator or the commissioner of the revenue. The board voted unanimously in 2021 to give Smither that control.

In the year that followed, the effort to create the office faced significant hurdles. The county hired a chief assessor last summer who resigned in early 2022 and a few other candidates were pursued but ultimately didn’t take the job before Prince was hired. The county has also faced numerous struggles with the implementation of Keystone Information Systems, its new mass appraisal system and countywide ERP system.

There were also accomplishments during that time, he said, including developing systems to automate land use documentation and recertify 1,285 land use taxpayers; working with the county’s former contracted assessor to make sure new construction was included in the new reassessment; producing reassessment notices; converting 2022 assessment data from the old system to the new; preparing board of equalization hearings in the spring, and getting current on supplemental billing.

After Prince was hired, the county’s assessment office was also staffed with three employees and gained significant assistance from another employee, Smither said. With that staff in place, Smither said the Jan. 1, 2023, assessment would be an improved product from the 2022 reassessment. He also said the county would complete the reassessment this year with no excuses.

After the presentation, Cox insisted Timberlake be given a chance to speak. Timberlake was agitated at having his name included at points in the presentation even though he said he was never consulted about anything to do with the assessor’s office. He questioned the way the administrative offices are being run in general. He also pointed out there is a current trend having the assessor’s offices in other counties being put under the authority of their respective commissioners of the revenue.

Williams said that Smither mentioning Prince in his presentation and the qualifications and experience she brought to Powhatan opened the door to Williams refuting that assertion through the emails he read at the meeting. During the 40 minutes he spoke, Williams read several emails, punctuating them with comments and pointing to particular details along the way. Through several of the emails, he attacked the assertion that Prince was qualified for the position of chief assessor, pointing to instances where he said her employment was terminated for not meeting the needs of year-end data assessment for a locality, not meeting qualifying standards, and “material misrepresentation regarding her credentials.” Williams also criticized the resume she submitted in Powhatan for not including her full employment history and the county for not better vetting it.

Williams read an email from Rod Compton, director of property tax for the Virginia Department of Taxation, to refute the assertion that a county administrator-controlled assessment office was preferred by the state.

He also criticized Smither’s recruitment of employees in another locality, thereby angering leaders there and damaging the relationships between the counties.

Change of control

Williams ended his lengthy speech by saying he was part of the unanimous vote in 2021 to make the changes to the assessment process, but he did so thinking assessments would be done better, which did not happen.

McClung said he never liked the way the assessment office was taken out of Timberlake’s authority and that when he campaigned for his seat, more than half of the people he spoke to felt the same. He announced his intention early in the discussion to return the duty to the commissioner of the revenue’s authority.

Cox said he didn’t care who handles the assessment function, he simply wants it done “well, consistently and timely.” He agreed with Smither’s suggestion to move the assessment function to the county administrator control a year ago but said now he no longer supports that move. He said there was no transition plan and there have been a variety of problems along the way, especially with staffing.

Carmack pointed out that what had just been done publicly to Prince, who sat in the audience and was “berated,” would be off putting to any person considering employment in Powhatan County. She questioned Timberlake’s plan and how he was going to deal with all of the challenges facing the assessment office right now.

Carmack also brought up the dynamic of the board and pointed out that among the challenges Smither faces are people “sabotaging his hiring efforts.”

Both Carmack and Byerly pointed to high county staff leadership turnover in the last decade, insinuating Williams was a common denominator during that time and questioning how effectively the county can run without stability.

Byerly worried about possible legal ramifications of the meeting with regard to airing information about Prince. Lacheney pointed out the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) “allows you to keep information private, it doesn’t require it.”

At this point, Byerly quoted a state tax official, who described Powhatan’s situation in April 2021 with the assessor’s office as a “perfect storm.” He had cautioned Byerly that transitioning to in-house assessments takes time, possibly upwards of 36 months.

When Byerly began to question Timberlake about his experience and his plan, the commissioner of the revenue said he did have a plan to figure out how to proceed, holding it up and offering to go through it. He added he had three commissioners of the revenue who use Keystone who had offered to share employees to help Powhatan “in the next five days.”

Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmcfarland@powhatantoday.com.

0 Comments

Related to this story

Most Popular

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.

Topics

Breaking News