FBI mum on county investigation

Published 5:00 am Thursday, July 19, 2001

A county-hired reappraiser has begun reviewing controversial newproperty values while state and possibly federal officials could beinterested in how the appraising contractor came to be hired inLincoln County.

A Federal Bureau of Investigations official Wednesday refused toeither confirm or deny any possible investigation. However, atleast one local resident said Wednesday he had been contacted by anFBI official regarding Lincoln County’s situation.

A circuit court ruling is pending in Madison County over whethersupervisors there acted properly in not seeking bids while hiringHerring Appraisers and Computer Services, the same firm hired inLincoln County, to do a reappraisal of county property values.Circuit Judge Samac Richardson said he would rule July 30 in thecase.

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In seeking to have the appraisal work done, Lincoln County TaxAssessor-Collector Nancy Jordan said contractors were allowed tosubmit bids on what they would charge to do the appraising andmapping work. A published advertisement for bids was not made, shesaid.

Jordan said she recommended Herring after contacting 11 othercounties where officials said they were satisfied with his work.Supervisors last March approved a $211,000 contract with Herring’sfirm.

In the Madison County case, state officials contend the lawrequires the services to be bid. County officials have argued itwas a contract for professional services and not required to bebid. Lincoln County’s situation, like a number of other counties inthe state, could come under review if the judge rules in thestate’s favor.

“If Judge Richardson makes that ruling, we could be looking atother counties that have awarded contracts,” said MelissaPatterson, special assistant attorney general.

Patterson and fellow Special Assistant Attorney General LeeMartin pointed to Sect. 27-35-101 of the state code, which sayscounties seeking to have appraisals done must publish a 30-daynotice for bids.

“We think that’s what the law requires,” Martin said, citing theAG’s office and state Audit Department’s position.

Martin said the reason for bids is two-fold. First, biddingallows for the procedure to done openly and publicly and, second,it helps ensure a “wise and prudent expenditure” of countyfunds.

“That’s a situation, theoretically, where you get the best valuefor the county’s money,” Martin said. “That’s what we think oughtto happen.”

Regarding other counties, Patterson acknowledged the statewideimplications of the pending Madison County case.

“Every county in the state is required to do this reappraisaland complete it by next June,” Patterson said.

Other agencies could also be interested in Lincoln County’ssituation, although that could not be confirmed Wednesday. An auditdepartment spokesman said there is no ongoing investigation inLincoln County, and an attorney with the Federal Bureau ofInvestigation office in Jackson could not comment.

“I can’t confirm or deny it,” said FBI attorney Mike Turner.

Brookhaven resident John Perkins said Wednesday he had beencontacted by the FBI regarding issues he raised concerning thebidding process at Monday’s Board of Supervisor’s meeting.

Perkins said he had also received phone calls Tuesday from theAttorney General’s office and the State Auditor’s office.

It was unclear what, if any, involvement the FBI could have inthe Lincoln County situation.

Contrary to the AG’s position, county officials have relied onother aspects of state law, including Sect. 19-3-69, and taxcommission guidelines maintaining that the services do not have tobe bid.

Sid Smith, director of the commission’s property tax division,told Lincoln County supervisors Monday that Herring was qualifiedunder contractor testing requirements that have been in place sincethe 1980s.

“That’s all you had to have through now,” Smith said.

Patterson said that the professional services statute applies toappraisers certified by the Mississippi Real Estate Commission.Herring is not certified and most contractors doing the work in thestate are not.

“That statute applies to him,” Patterson said. “That’s whatwe’re arguing before Judge Richardson.”

Jordan said Wednesday she believes Herring would be”grandfathered” for approval under the certification law, which wasenacted in 1990.

Meanwhile, Jordan said Herring officials have returned to thecounty and are reviewing citizens’ objections to their new propertyvalues.

An area around the government complex is getting attention dueto the city’s $175,000 purchase and the county’s $89,000 purchaseof nearby properties. Some believe those sales inflated values ofsome surrounding property.

“I’m having him redo this whole block because of those twosales,” Jordan said.

Regarding citizen complaints over the new values, Chancery ClerkTillmon Bishop said he has received 200 letters from peopleobjecting to their new values. He pointed out that represents lessthan 2 percent of the over 11,000 notices that were sent outrecently to citizens whose property values increased by $1,000 ormore.

Following a review by the tax office, supervisors are scheduledto hear property value objections at their Aug. 6 meeting at thegovernment complex.

Jordan indicated the new values cover more than just two-yearperiod from the 1999-2000 tax years. She said the last appraisalwas in 1997.

“We haven’t had an appraisal since then,” she said. “It’s notlike comparing last year to now.”

Jordan also mentioned a new state manual for determiningproperty values. Smith told supervisors Monday the new manual,adopted in 1998, better accounts for newer buildings and increasesvalues on higher class properties.

Smith also told supervisors that Lincoln County had been warnedthe last two years that its property values were out of line withacceptable fair market value guidelines, and the county could beplaced under a special order if the situation was not addressed.Failure to update values can cost counties their homesteadexemption credit funds from the state and a one-mill tax levy forreappraisal.

Jordan indicated homestead credit could not be given if propertyrolls are not accepted.

“I don’t want people in Lincoln County to not get anyhomestead,” Jordan said.

New property values rolls are open for public inspection duringJuly in the board of supervisors room. Jordan encouraged anyonewith questions about the new values to contact her office and shewould look into the situation.