The controversy surrounding embattled Chief Appraiser Jerry Lee spilled into a called meeting of the Erath County Commissioners Court Wednesday as county officials came together to make headway in the ongoing debate.
While commissioners remain frustrated by the issue, progress was made on the part of the county, as the court decided in a 2-1 vote to approve a resolution disapproving the action of the Erath County Central Appraisal District board of directors.
By parcel count, the county is the largest taxing entity within the appraisal district, and contributed about one third of the reserve budget the ECCAD board is proposing to use to pay Lee’s severance package, which totals more than $160,000. Stephenville ISD is the largest entity by levy amount.
County Judge Tab Thompson said the group was assembled to discuss the board’s decision to release Lee and the subsequent offer of the buyout package and showed his obvious disapproval.
“I think this thing stinks from top to bottom,” Thompson said.
Showing his support for the resolution, Thompson said the best thing the appraisal board could do is to “meet with Lee, mend their fences, renew his contract and move on.” He said in moving forward, each of the county’s taxing entities should keep a watchful eye on the district, and address issues as they arise.
In addition, Thompson said if there were issues at the appraisal district worth terminating Lee, the county would have been informed by Tax Assessor/Collector Jennifer Carey, who serves as the county’s representative.
“I would have come kicking and screaming,” Carey agreed. “I’m still waiting to find out what Jerry Lee did wrong. The board has received one formal written complaint, which is being handled by chairman Bill Bailey and another board member.”
Carey also said prior to the creation of the appraisal district, appraisals in the county were “all over the place,” and explained that beginning in 1980, law required all values to be at 100-percent.
“During that time (prior to 1980), if there was a dispute, it went to the board of equalization,” Carey explained.
She said the board was composed of members of the taxing entities, who were elected officials, such as city council members. Those representatives could be voted out of office if they did not give in to public pressure. Carey said the appraisal review board replaced the board of equalization and the appraisal board was established to oversee the appraisal district.
“Those changes were made to take the politics out of the process,” Carey said. “Thank goodness we got away from that.”
Thompson also asked County Auditor James Young to give his assessment of the current situation.
“In my opinion, Bill Bailey and Neal Guthrie represent a really small group of people,” Young said. “There may be 100 out of the 33,000 Jerry Lee has to serve. Katherine Prater represents Sid (Miller), also a part of a small group, with a lot of weight.”
In addition, Young said he doesn’t believe Guthrie, Bailey or Prater represent the entities that appointed them or the taxpayers they are also charged to serve.
“Those people have no representation,” Young said. “But, I do believe Jennifer Carey and Dannah Procter represent the people and (for that) they are left out of the loop.”
Still, Young said he has complete respect for Guthrie and Prater.
“I don’t believe they would do what they have done without being unduly pressured,” Young said.
Finally, Commissioners Randy Lowe, Pct. 4, and Lynn Tidwell, Pct. 2, spoke up.
“The past few days, some pressure has come my way,” Lowe said. “I don’t like to be pressured.”
Lowe said he was told that if he did not make certain decisions, the group was going to get him, too.
“This is a very, very small group that decided they wanted to run me, and it’s not going to work,” Lowe said.
Lowe also expressed disgust for the situation at the appraisal district.
“This whole thing is disgusting,” Lowe said. “I have asked and asked why the contract was not renewed. People want and deserve to know. If he has done wrong, fine. If it is all about attitude, a lot of us would be without a job.”
And, for Lowe, a pay-off deal is not an option.
“I will have nothing to do with paying a man off to get him out of his office,” Lowe said. “The pay-off deal stinks. I will not pay, and I want to know what is going on.”
On the flipside, Tidwell said he had received little communication on the issue and absolutely no pressure from anyone. He also said while he stands behind Carey as the county’s representative, but in regards to his precinct, he had another opinion.
“Dublin needs to take a lead so we know if they feel they are being represented or not,” Tidwell said. “I would like to see how these people lean before we go any further.”
Thompson reminded the commissioners that the issue was the talk of the county and had been for a while. He also said problem thus far had been a lack of communication.
“If the appraisal district board members who have grievances with Jerry had gone to the entities they would be working together with the same information. We are simply saying if you have something to bring, bring it!” Thompson said.
Finally, Carey said any complaints against Lee should have been handled during his annual evaluation, which was not completed for 2008. She said the evaluation had been on the board’s agenda several times and was postponed repeatedly for various reasons.
“All of this could have come out if the board had done an evaluation, which we did not,” Carey said. “Our manual says that we are supposed to complete an evaluation. With that, we could have been informed, enlightened. We could have taken disciplinary action.”
Lowe and Thompson voted to approve the resolution disapproving the action of the ECCAD board. Tidwell voted against the resolution, expressing respect for Carey and Lee and reiterating that he wants to see if the entities in his precinct feel they are being represented.
Following the approval of the resolution, Thompson offered a final comment.
“If none of the other entities take action, this is over. We are just one of 19,” Thompson said. “Either way, I hope the appraisal district will take another look, come together, come to terms and put this whole thing behind them.”
The Erath County Appraisal District board of directors will meet today at 4 p.m. in the boardroom at the appraisal district office, located at 1390 Harbin Drive.
Following an open forum, the board will meet in executive session to discuss Lee’s severance offer and other issues. In addition, the board will consider amending the 2008 and 2009 budget to accommodate the offer and appoint an interim chief appraiser.
Just hours later, the Dublin ISD board of trustees will meet by request of President Don Keith regarding a resolution to disapprove the actions of the ECCAD board. The DISD board meets at 7 p.m. in the high school library.