It seems as if a political opponent has recently accused me of being opposed to greenbelt taxation so I reviewed the statement that I wrote on OCT 14, 2015 (see below) and add the following for clarification:
When this discussion on greenbelt started back in 2015, I visited Ronda Clanton in her office and we had a very informative discussion on greenbelt taxation.
That was just before a called meeting of the Financial Management Committee on Fri. Oct. 16, 2015 where Ronda Clanton attended and was asked about these issues and certain properties in particular by Robert Daniel. The T-G had an article that Sun.18th, recapping the meeting and ending with, ”The officials attending Friday agreed that asking the state for a performance audit would be an appropriate first step, and that they will re-convene at some point after that.” As noted in my original statement, I did not disagree with a full audit of greenbelt usages.
Ronda Clanton went on in an interview in the T-G on Oct. 20, 2015 to clarify her position.
I was interviewed by Jason Lamb of Channel 5 News which aired on the 20th, and I said, “State law really doesn’t have any vehicle for us to demand the property owners provide proof (of usage).” I also said, “Before we get into raising taxes, I think we need to be sure that every potential source of revenue we have is being done properly.” Keep in mind at this time we are looking how to fund a new school and jail… I asked Jason how many people turned him down for the interview before he called me.. “9 or 10” was his answer.
Jan 26, 2016 at the Financial Management Committee, Commissioner Yoes asked Robert about the status of the greenbelt issue. Robert stated he had not heard anything new from the Comptrollers office. This statement leads me to believe that Robert had contacted the state Comptrollers office asking for an performance audit of the Property Assessors office.
Feb 23, 2016 at the Financial Management Committee, Commissioner Yoes again asked Robert about the status of the greenbelt issue. Robert stated according to the Comptroller’s office, an audit will take two (2) years and they will have to look at every piece of property. Robert stated he would forward the information to committee members to decide on how they want to proceed.
Mar. 22, 2016, at the Financial Management Committee, Commissioner Yoes again asked Robert about the status of the greenbelt issue and was told an email from the Comptroller’s office stated an audit would be costly. Robert suggested, as the 5 year property evaluation was underway, that the committee wait and see those results before acting.
the T-G article on May 5, 2016 detailed Ronda’s visit to the Rotary Club on the property valuation process. During that visit a club member asked about greenbelt. “there are no teeth in that law,” said Clanton. “I think it needs to be looked at.”
And that was the last we heard about greenbelt audits. No discussion or action has been had by the commission since.
In short, The greenbelt taxation is an absolute necessity for our farmers and I am totally in favor of it. The law was enacted by the Tennessee General Assembly with the enforcement of it charged to the Property Assessors office. Ronda Clanton has done, and is doing, an excellent job and I fully support her. But, as with most things involving government and money, there are those who will sidestep, disregard or take advantage of the law, and that is why I was in favor of an audit...not to punish farmers but to ensure everyone was playing fairly.. and until the General Assembly choses to look at it again (and I don’t think they will) nothing is going to change.
Oct 14, 2015
GREENBELT recap of events
Robert Daniels stated that CTAS recommended a review or audit of GREENBELT properties in Bedford County before raising taxes to build a jail. Don Gallagher moved in the Finance Committee on June 23, 2015 that a recommendation for a Greenbelt review be presented to the full commission. On July 14, 2015 at the regular Commission meeting, Don asked for the matter to be deferred, seconded by Bobby Fox. At the August 11 Commission meeting it was again deferred by Don and again seconded by Bobby. At the September 8th meeting, the issue was not on the agenda, and when I questioned it, I was told Ronda Clanton had not had time to schedule a meeting with Robert & Don. Again at the October 13th Commission meeting the matter was not on the agenda, but since I had been informed a meeting with Ronda was scheduled for Oct 16, I did not bring the matter up.
I downloaded and printed the GREENBELT HANDBOOK for Assessors of Property dated July 2013.
Page 1 “The Purpose of Greenbelt” clearly states In 1976 the Tennessee General Assembly (“General Assembly”), “concerned about the threat to open land posed by urbanization and high land taxes,”1 enacted the Agricultural, Forest and Open Space Land Act of 1976 (“Act”).2 The purpose of the Act is to help preserve agricultural, forest, and open-space land. This is accomplished by valuing these lands on their present use—“the value of land based on its current use as either agricultural, forest, or open space land and assuming that there is no possibility of the land being used for another purpose”3—rather than at their highest and best use—.....also on page 2 it is stated .....But to take advantage of this, an application must be completed and signed by the property owner, approved by the assessor, and recorded with the register of deeds.9 ......
So I contacted the Register of Deeds and obtained a list of all the new properties listed from Jan 2, 2015 up thru Sept 30, 2015. (205 parcels in 2015) The first property to catch my eye was owned by American City Bank and I wondered why a bank would be entitled to greenbelt status. The address is 3824 Hwy 231 N Shelbyville. I googled the address and found it is Blackberry Ridge Golf Course. The golf course’s current use is not, nor has it been historically used for agriculture, and it cannot be “held for use” on the assumption agriculture will take place in the future.
Page 3 of the Handbook states:
§ 1. The definition of agricultural land.
For land to qualify as agricultural, it must be at least 15 acres, including woodlands and wastelands, and either:
(1) constitutes a farm unit engaged in the production or growing of agricultural products; or
has been farmed by the owner or the owner’s parent or spouse for at least 25 years and is used as the residence of the owner and not used for any purpose inconsistent with an agricultural use.14
Land cannot qualify just because an owner intends to farm. In other words, it cannot be held for use. It must be actively engaged in farming. For example, land not being farmed as of the assessment date (January 1)—or will be farmed after the assessment date—cannot qualify for the current tax year.
nor can Blackberry Ridge be classified as Open Space. Page 8 of the handbook “Open-space Land” states:
...Open-space land is defined as land containing at least three acres characterized principally by an open or a natural condition and whose preservation would tend to provide the public with one or more of the benefits found in T.C.A. § 67-5-100226: ....BUT also it states that.... Although open-space land also includes lands primarily devoted to recreational use,31 it would not apply to golf courses.32 In 1983, the Tennessee Attorney General wrote that golf courses are not in a “natural” condition and are too “carefully manicured and highly developed” to be considered “open” under the Act.33
I contacted Doug Bodary (CTAS) to get more information and he pointed me to the TACIR 2009 study and a Murfreesboro Post news article on Rutherford County’s greenbelt audit.
...The Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR) was created in July 1978 by Chapter 939 of the Public Acts of 1978. TACIR was created in response to legislative findings in the late 1970s indicating the need for a permanent intergovernmental body to study and take action on questions of organizational patterns, powers, functions, and relationships among federal, state, and local governments.
In 2009 TACIR reported that Bedford County was 1 of 9 counties whose difference of USE VALUE vs MARKET VALUE of GREENBELT parcels exceeded 15% of the total Market Value Assessment and concluded that, “ Tax rates were likely set higher in these counties to offset the reduced assessments, and the bulk of higher taxes were paid by those who are not eligible for or don’t receive the tax relief offered by Greenbelt valuation.”
TACIR also reported the 2009 total value assessments of Greenbelt land in Bedford County was $97,238.225.00 which was 57.09% below market value assessments. ($170,324,444.00 full market value assessments)
In 2009, Rutherford County”s property assessor reviewed all of that county’s greenbelt properties, sent letters to the land owners asking for proof their property still qualified for greenbelt status. He found around 10% of the properties did not still meet the standard and were removed from Greenbelt resulting in over $780,000.00 in back taxes being paid to the county. According to TACIR, in 2009 only 3.5% of the parcels in Rutherford County were in Greenbelt.
I went further and researched if other counties had similar issues.
In 2013 the TennesseeWatchdog.org reporter Chris Butler, reported that 4 Tennessee counties, Macon, DeKalb, Fentress and Clay had findings in their 2012 audits relative to Greenbelt status. I looked up the 2012 audit reports for these 4 counties. Each of these counties had the audit finding ..”New owners of greenbelt properties were not required to file a new application for agricultural property.” Chris Butler went on to report that in Macon County, “auditors found problems with the records for 66 of the 147 properties reviewed, or more than 40%. In the other counties the auditors did not quantify the problem” In a companion article, Chris Butler quotes DeKalb County Assessor as saying, “The system is supposed to flag greenbelt parcels when a new owner is keyed or when the acres change, but this does not always happen.”
In the November 2013 article, Macon and DeKalb counties were reported as being in the process of rectifying greenbelt properties when those properties sell.
I will say I looked at Bedford County’s audit findings back to 2005 and did not find any problems of any kind noted with the Assessors Office.
According to the 2014 TN State Board of Equalization TAX AGGREGATE REPORT, there are 22,641 taxable parcels of land in Bedford County. 3,324 of them classifies as Greenbelt. Adding in the 205 parcels from the 2015 listing, that makes 3,529 parcels enjoying an average of 57% reduction in tax liability. This represents 15.59% of Bedford County’s property tax base. Compared to the Tennessee average of 6.2% greenbelt, it is easily noted that Bedford Count is 2-1/2 times over the state average on Greenbelt usage.
If just 10% of the Greenbelt properties in Bedford County were reclassified (based on Rutherford County findings) $7,308,622.00 would be added back to the Market Value Assessments. At the current rate of $2.27 for every $100 at 25% value, I calculate the rollback taxes would be at least $124,430.00 and $41,766.00 annually would be added to the tax coffers.
In light of the noted problems and actions in other counties as well as the variances of percentages between Bedford County and the State averages of the number of greenbelt parcels and resulting property valuations, as well as the probability of increased revenue from certain properties being correctly classified and the fact it has been almost 20 years since the last Greenbelt review, (based on a phone conversation with Keith Matheny of the TN Dept. of Property Assessment.. the last statewide review was in 1997), and given the facts the Property Assessors office is in a labor intensive revaluation year, and that I can not find any statute giving the Commission the authority to compel the Property Assessors office to conduct a review, I suggest Bedford County obtain the full listing of all greenbelt parcels from the Assessors office through the Freedom of Information Act and hire an outside firm to perform the review. By State Statute (§ 67-5-1407 (b)-1) the County government has the authority to bring before the County Board of Equalization any parcel which it believes to be erroneously classified or sub classified, has not been included on the assessment lists, or has been assessed on the basis of appraised values less than fair market value.