Michelle Willard, the Daily News Journal, December 21, 2014
MURFREESBORO – Rutherford County Property Assessor Rob Mitchell has grabbed a few headlines in the two years he has been in office.
Unlike his predecessor, Bill Boner, who made the news for allegedly harassing his employees and other misdeeds, Mitchell’s headlines have centered around his purchase of hybrid cars, cost savings for the county and his creation of an art gallery on the second floor of the the county clerk’s office on Maple Street in Murfreesboro.
Mitchell’s most recent claim to fame has been the purchase of two Ford C-Max hybrids funded through a grant with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. The grant was part of the $2.2 million awarded to local governments to improve on energy efficiency of operations.
He also said he has saved the county $750,000 by reorganizing the property assessor’s office, but the state negated those savings by giving late notice about adjusted certified property tax rates, costing the county $2.1 million in projected property tax revenue.
Mitchell took time from driving around the county, reviewing property to talk about his job, cars, politics and creating a comfortable environment for his employees:
Can you briefly explain to property owners how you appraise a property and come to its value?
Mitchell: Well, first thing is (for residential properties) there’s market value or we’ll go by recent sales or sales history. There’s also the cost approach to valuation, which is the material and labor that goes into construct the property. That includes the cost of the land.
What is your proudest achievement as property assessor?There’s the income approach to valuation for commercial properties, where a business’s worth is what its ability to generate income is. If you have a store front and it’s valued at “X,” that could could be a cost approach or a blended approach. That is actually includes what the worth of the property is. So for commercial property it is done a little different. It’s similar, but there’s a little bit more that goes into it, than with residential.
Mitchell: My proudest achievement is over the past two years we have returned more than $750,000 to back to the county general fund in savings.
We rearranged the department, made some operational efficiencies, renegotiated some contracts. We delayed hiring with some job shifts, so we wouldn’t have to hire someone if someone retired. We renegotiated some equipment purchases that we had budgeted for. We renegotiated with vendors and got a 75 percent reduction in the price of equipment.
That’s just the skill I had from the private sector. … When someone says this is the price, I don’t believe them until we get a chance to go over the numbers.
The second proudest thing is I worked for two years writing an HR (human resources) manual for the department. The reason I did that, the county HR manual didn’t give adequate protection to employees.
One of the things it did was advise employees if they have a problem with the elected official to take their complaints to HR or the county mayor (Ernest Burgess).
The mayor and HR have no control over an elected official, so I did research and brought my case to the county attorney (Jim Cope); he concurred that I was correct.
And now if you have a grievance with the elected official, you take that grievance straight to the county attorney or to the district attorney (Jennings Jones) or to the state’s attorney general (Herbert Slatery). … They will open a confidential investigation and, if they find merit, then they’ll make charges against the official and the employee is protected. … I wrote that to take care of my people.
Tell our readers about the fuel-efficient cars.
Mitchell: Earlier this year, we purchased two Ford C-Max hybrids through the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation Clean Energy Grant program, which was essentially a buy one, get one free. So we bought one vehicle, and they gave us a second.
At our last reporting, we’ve driven one 800 miles and wound up putting 17 gallons of gas in it (which is about 47 MPG.) The second C-Max, the dark gray one, it’s got almost 500 miles and we have yet to fill it up the first time. We are still driving off the gas the dealership filled it up with.
So I know the price of gas is coming down now, but you can never, you can’t count on the price being down forever. Being prudent and efficient, if you can use less of something that’s always a good thing for the taxpayers and for us to do what we have to do, which is go out and review the properties every four years. We have 112,000 parcels in Rutherford County, and we are charged with reviewing them every four years to inspect them and see if anything has changed.
So in reappraisal years you’re putting a lot of miles on those cars?
Mitchell: We’re on a four-year reappraisal cycle, so it’s three years of review and the last year of coordinating the numbers where we verify this, verify this, verifying this and double-check and verify again and send it to the state. And then everyone gets their reappraisal letters with their new value.
In between reappraisal years, is the only notice someone will get is if there is a physical change in their property.
The reappraisal notice that came out earlier this year; most of them hadn’t changed from the last reappraisal in 2010. So we take a snapshot and whatever that value is will hold for the property until the next snapshot saying it’s worth this much now. That’s what taxes are based on.
In June, the Rutherford County Commission adopted a $2.4968 property tax rate based on keeping revenues neutral after the 2014 property reappraisals. The county then learned in July that the State Board of Equalization decided the certified rate should be $2.4867, meaning the county’s revenues would be $2.1 million less than expected.
Can you explain the miscalculation that cost the county $2.1 million?
Mitchell: That didn’t cost the county anything. That’s a misconception. The state continued to figure numbers after they were submitted. We thought they were final. Actually, they could’ve been. They could’ve taken the number and run with them, but they simply chose to redo it when some jurisdictions went up; some went down. … Revenues weren’t as high as they (the county) expected, because they had a greater valuation than what came through. The state said, ‘These tax freezes should have been done differently. And you’ve got this.’ It’s just the state was slow in verifying the numbers … They took longer than they are supposed it by statute. If they don’t have an answer back within 15 days of receiving them, then they will adopt those numbers. But they didn’t. And then the state came in and sent out letters saying, ‘Oops, we goofed.’ It wasn’t just us. There were a lot of counties that got the same letter.
What’s your biggest challenge been in office?
Mitchell: As an assessor I guess my biggest challenge has been adapting to the way government operates. I was my own boss for 15 years. If there was something that needed to be done and made economic sense, then I did it. People say, ‘You’re cheap.’ I say, ‘I’m not cheap. I’m Scottish, I’m frugal.’ But now I have to ask someoneelse’s permission to make this savings. … It’s just a slower, more cumbersome way of doing things.
Your predecessor, Bill Boner, was criticized for taking properties off the Greenbelt, which allows for agricultural land to be taxed for its present use, not its market value. The law is intended to preserve farm and forest land. What’s your approach to determining who belongs on the Greenbelt and who doesn’t?
Mitchell: I told my folks early on when I came here, ‘If it looks like a duck and it quacks, then it’s a duck.’
I believe that my predecessor acted on what he thought was good information but it was misdirected. I don’t think he had any; I can’t believe he had any malice. I just think what he did was incorrect.
If someone has 15 acres and they are doing some kind of agriculture, the state says they deserve some kind of concessions. It was deliberately written that way (because) there are certain times when they (farmers) don’t make a profit. It says you have to make a profit and in agriculture sometimes you don’t.
I had an issue come up two weeks ago where we have the opportunity to have (another) state law changed. …
There’s this program called the Homebelt program that is similar to the Greenbelt program. It allows someone who is living in a family home that the area around it has gone commercial, they would be permitted to be assessed as a residential property, rather than a commercial property.
The reason is you have areas of fast development, where you have an elderly person living in a place and suddenly the community grows up around it and the land prices change because now it’s commercial property.
So what Homebelt does is allow people to get a concession on that and while they are living in their house, pay residential taxes, even if the area goes commercial.
But the way the law is written, it says that it will follow lineal descent, which is blood relatives — father, to son, to grandson or granddaughter through the bloodline. It does not allow for the spouse. … I spoke with the comptroller’s office to make a motion this next session to propose legislation to change that law to read that the surviving family members will be able to keep it on Homebelt.
That’s just one of those things that’s doing what’s right. … The legislative intent is not to punish widows. It should go up this legislative session.
What is your basic political philosophy?
Mitchell: Doing an accurate job.
I really don’t have much of a political philosophy. I see myself as a public servant. I believe that the government should be run as efficiently as possible, and in this particular position, accuracy is very, very important. So I guess my political philosophy is doing the right thing and doing a good job and saving the taxpayers money.
You’re one a few Democrats left in elected office in Rutherford County government. It’s an overwhelmingly red county. What is your plan for re-election in two years?
Mitchell: Running hard.
The best thing anyone can do is do a good job, treat people fairly; if there is something wrong with the process, adapt if possible.
I’m much more concerned with being right than being consistent. There are people who will doggedly stick to a particular position and drive it into the ground and not change their opinion.
If something is right, it’s right. But if it needs to be changed, it needs to be different.
Do your job, do it well, be efficient, don’t take advantage of your position of authority for personal gain.
Reach Michelle Willard at 615-278-5168 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @MichWillard.