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Politics, land seem linked
Mar 07, 2005 12:00 am
A West Wilson County family believed to oppose outgoing property assessor Jimmy Carter Martin saw the assessed value of their land increase dramatically just after election day, while a family perceived as his supporters enjoyed a substantial decrease.
Three members of the Martin-friendly family who saw their property assessments drop shortly after election day are among the 38 assessments cited as "improper" in the state's annual audit of county finances.
Though in his written response to the audit's findings Martin denied any wrongdoing, the report said the property values were lowered "as a result of improper adjustments to the appraisal records" and sites inspected showed no "physical changes" to justify the decreases in assessed value.
A study of property assessment adjustments made in Martin's final weeks in office revealed three members of a prominent West Wilson County family perceived to oppose his re-election bid saw the assessed value of five parcels of land increase by nearly $80,000 just 11 days after his defeat by current Property Assessor Jimmy Locke.
Records on file in the Property Assessor's office show District 8 County Commissioner W.J. 'Mac' McCluskey, his father-in-law Herschel Ligon and Ligon's son, Dan Ligon, saw their property assessments increased by a total of $79,800. All of the assessments were increased Aug. 16, the documents show.
McCluskey, one of the longest-tenured county commissioners, responded "I'm sure" when asked if he felt politics played a role in the increase.
"I own some property across the road from my home and one of Mr. Locke's campaign signs appeared there," McCluskey said. "I didn't put it there, I didn't have anything to do with the election one way or another. But Dan Ligon had one (a Locke sign) on his property too."
Former Lebanon City Councilor Johnny Knowles – a one-time mayoral candidate and longtime Carter political ally – last week acknowledged the assessed value of his West Spring Street home was decreased by $34,000 just three days after election day, one of the 38 "improper" decreases cited by state auditors. Knowles strongly maintained he never sought preferential treatment from Martin, saying he "never had a conversation with Jimmy Martin about it, never asked him to lower my property value assessment or anything else."
Knowles, when contacted again Tuesday about the issue, confirmed two of his "distant cousins" are among the 38 improper assessments cited by state auditors.
Property records show Wayne Knowles of Walnut Hill Road received a $42,300 assessment decrease while Lewis Knowles of Jones Road was the beneficiary of a $7,800 assessment decrease. When combined with Johnny Knowles' lowered assessment, the three relatives received a total property assessment break of $84,100 with records showing all of the assessments were decreased Aug. 9, just three days after Martin's re-election defeat.
Knowles said he hasn't discussed the property assessments with his relatives, whom he said he sees only on special occasions.
"You're the first person that's even mentioned it to me," Knowles told a reporter. "They're good people, I see them at family reunions and funerals sometimes and that's about it these days."
The Knowles family and the Ligon/McCluskey clan are not the only prominent local residents who experienced sudden changes in property assessments during Martin's final weeks in office, records show.
Four Woodmont Avenue sites owned by well-known Lebanon construction company owner Eddie Conrad were all appraised upward Aug. 9 – the same date the Knowles relatives enjoyed assessment decreases.
Records show the assessments of the four Conrad-owned sites were increased by a total of $41,700. The assessed value of three of the sites was raised by $8,000 while the fourth was increased by $17,700, documents indicate.
The homebuilder's wife, Jocelyn Conrad, said neither she nor her husband took a public stand in the Martin-Locke race.
"I feel like it's probably something he just kind of went through and did, something just to aggravate knowing he lost," she said, adding the upward assessments "probably didn't amount to much more than $50, money wise."
Conrad said she has already made a trip to the county courthouse to have the appraisals corrected on behalf of her husband.
"I was told there was no reason for it to ever have been readjusted at all," she said. "I just feel like it was something done to aggravate more than anything else."
The audit report – delivered to county officials Feb. 7 – pointed out among the 38 improper assessment decreases were three parcels owned by Martin himself. The values of the three were decreased by $55,000 just one week before he left office, records show. In addition, property owned by Martin's sister was appraised downward by $4,000, records indicate.
Among other landowners whose lowered reappraisals were cited as improper by the state are two men who according to county records own multiple pieces of property – Lawrence Rose and Dwight McClanahan.
Rose, who owns four parcels on North Cumberland Street near one of Martin's properties, received a total assessment decrease of $67,200 just four days before the outgoing property assessor left office, records show. Attempts to contact Rose were unsuccessful Tuesday.
The assessments of three sites owned by McClanahan – two on Anderson Avenue and one on Jennings Avenue – received a total decrease of $37,200, records show. A message left on McClanahan's answering machine Tuesday went unanswered.
District Attorney General Tommy Thompson, who recently refused to rule out the possibility of a criminal investigation into the audit findings, was unavailable for comment Tuesday.
Martin, in his official response to the auditor's findings, maintained he was following guidelines set forth by the state comptroller's office in making the assessment changes just before leaving office.
"Any changes that were made were according to the schedule set forth by the state Department of Assessments," Martin said in his response to auditors, which is included in the county's annual audit report." These were done by the office after they were brought to our attention and checked on the property card. As far as any parcel that I had any interest in, I am aware of only one parcel. That parcel had been changed for improvements that were not there and for office space that was actually a storage room."
The report was also critical of Martin for failing to add new construction to the county's tax rolls in a timely manner, an allegation Locke made several times during his campaign.
Senior Staff Writer Brooks Franklin can be reached at 444-3952 ext. 14 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.