In the third meeting of the Erath County Central Appraisal District (ECCAD) board of directors in just over a month, the board voted to table all action relevant to ongoing matters surrounding the termination of Chief Appraiser Jerry Lee.
The board met for a called meeting Monday to discuss amendments to the district’s budget and to appoint an interim chief appraiser. But after almost an hour of discussions, the board was no closer to finalizing the severance package offered to Lee or naming a replacement.
As it stands, Lee is still the chief appraiser.
Board member Neal Guthrie said he wanted to clarify one thing - that Lee “was not fired from the district, but was offered a severance package.”
Jennifer Carey also reminded the board that Lee has not accepted the package, so motions for budget amendments and appointments might be “a bit premature.”
Uncertain which way to go, board president Bill Bailey read a letter from the board’s attorney, explaining that the board would have to make budget amendments showing where the money would be taken from, then present the proposed adjustments to the taxing entities for approval. The letter explained that the county’s taxing entities could veto the board’s decision to offer the more than $100,000 severance package.
While the board was set on approving the budget amendments and appointing Senior Appraiser Don Fulton as the interim appraiser during last Tuesday’s meeting, a week later the board was working to figure out how they could approve Lee’s severance pay without approval from the entities that fund the district.
Bailey said much of the concern over the approval of the package came the “newspaper’s cry” over taxpayers footing the bill.
According to board member Neal Guthrie, the total package for 2009, including medical benefits for Lee and his dependent, retirement, longevity and salary is more than $139,000. The remainder of Lee’s 2008 contract is more than $22,000 - totaling over $161,000.
With the numbers on the table, Guthrie said he is concerned that if the board voted to approve the 2009 budget amendment, the taxing entities would not agree and would veto their decision. The board then discussed other options for funding the parting package. It was suggested that the board use funds already allotted to pay Lee’s 2009 salary to pay the severance, and hold off on an amendment until the need to hire a new chief appraiser would create the need for an amendment.
Guthrie said that approach also raised concerns since the taxing entities would likely be upset by the fact that they did not have a voice in the discussion.
Bailey said he was convinced the city of Stephenville, the entity he represents, would vote against the proposed amendment. Carey said the county would likely do the same.
Dr. Dannah Procter said she has been in direct contact with the entities she represents, but did not state how they might vote on the topic.
Carey reminded the board whether the budget is amended now or later, the entities still deserve to be heard.
“Every cent in the appraisal district budget was placed there by the taxing entities,” Carey said.
When contacted for his take on the issue, County Auditor James Young was again shocked by the board’s decision and does not believe the board can “buy off” Lee without an amendment to the district’s budget.
“I do not see that there is any way they can pay more than $100,000 without a budget amendment,” Young said. “This is just my take, but the only way that I see they could do that is if the district operates a whole year without a new chief appraiser.”
At least for now, the embattled chief appraiser will keep his office. Guthrie said until the board makes a decision, the appraisal district is in good hands.
“Jerry has been here for 22 years,” Guthrie said. “Let’s let him run it until our next meeting.”
While Guthrie was willing to give Lee a few more weeks at the helm, the other board members said the issue needed to be resolved as quickly as possible. The ECCAD board of directors will meet again Thursday at 4 p.m.
The various taxing entities, including the city of Stephenville, Erath County, Dublin ISD and Middle Trinity Groundwater Conservation District had already organized special meetings to discuss the controversy at the appraisal district, but those meetings will be pointless until the ECCAD board finally acts on the appraiser issue.