Tax freeze dominates Hamilton assessor of property race

The Hamilton County Assessor of Property race is between Democrat Mark Siedlecki, left, and Republican Marty Haynes, right.

The Hamilton County Assessor of Property race between Democrat Mark Siedlecki and Republican Marty Haynes has been dominated by one issue: a senior property tax freeze that the county commission has yet to adopt since the Tenneessee General Assembly gave counties and municipalities the option in 2007.

If Hamilton County had adopted the program, seniors making less than $38,720 a year could qualify.

Although the assessor's office has no authority to implement such a program, Siedlecki spent much of his allotted time discussing the matter during a recent Lookout Valley Neighborhood Association candidate forum that included Haynes, a county commissioner.

"If one senior citizen loses their home because they can't pay their taxes, we are not doing our job as citizens of Hamilton County to take care of these people," Siedlecki said.

Haynes countered that all county residents - not just seniors - have benefited from a freeze on property tax rates since 2007.

The County Commission has stated several times that it is willing to consider a senior tax freeze if and when it considers a property tax rate increase, Haynes said previously.

A senior tax freeze, however, also protects against higher tax payments driven by property value increases.

Siedlecki only challenged Haynes on that point during the forum. His campaign's news releases and online content take a stronger approach, calling out his opponent for not advocating for a senior tax freeze during his county commission tenure.

"I'm not opposed to [a senior tax freeze], but I'm not going to use it for political gain, either," Haynes said after the event. "If you are going to have a serious talk about a senior tax freeze for Hamilton County, you also need to include Chattanooga."

Chattanooga, like Hamilton County, has not adopted a senior tax freeze program. A significant number of the 29 Tennessee municipalities that have the program are located in Shelby and Davidson counties, which also have the freeze.

Siedlecki cited four examples of Chattanooga property owners whose county tax bills have increased between 2007 and 2015, but could not answer how the owners' city tax bills might have changed during that period when an audience member asked him.

"I don't know what the city tax rates are, but I'm focused solely on running for Hamilton County assessor," Siedlecki said.

The forum touched upon other issues that also do not fall under the authority of the assessor's office.

"You have inserted yourself into a position of a policy maker, so to speak, on this issue of a tax freeze," said neighborhood association president Ron Ray to Siedlecki, before asking about his stance on health care benefits for same-sex couples. "I vote on moral issues, as well."

Before Siedlecki answered, Ray stipulated he posed the question as an audience member and not in his official association capacity.

Forum moderator Joe Graham, a Republican county commissioner, directed Ray to ask the question to both candidates.

"If somebody is married, they need to have the same rights as anybody else has," Siedlecki said.

Haynes' received an "Amen!" from an audience member when he said his campaign follows "the state with one man and one woman as the way we recognize marriage."

In 2006, Tennessee passed a same-sex marriage ban, which was overruled in a 2015 Supreme Court decision.

Chattanooga Councilman Chris Anderson, the city's first openly gay elected official, serves as Siedlecki's campaign manager and attempted in 2013 to pass a health benefits ordinance for city employees with same-sex spouses.

Both candidates have decades of private business experience and said they will push for modernization of the assessor's office.

Siedlecki, who has worked in the technology fields, said he "knows how to speak to programmers."

Haynes said he also will focus on assessor training and communications with EPB and the Industrial Development Board.

Contact staff writer Paul Leach at 423-757-6481 or Follow on Twitter @pleach_tfp.