Just days before early voting begins, two Republican candidates for Hamilton County property assessor unleashed "D.C. politics" in an effort to sway local conservatives.
Hamilton County Commission Chairman Randy Fairbanks, who is opposing incumbent and former friend Marty Haynes in the Republican primary next month, sent a mailer set to fill local mailboxes on Monday accusing Haynes of improperly lowering the property value of a golf course to save a friend on property tax.
According to Fairbanks, Haynes is behind the more than 28% decrease in assessed value for Creeks Bend Golf Club in Hixson, which was certified just months after Haynes took office in 2016.
"I had been researching this issue for quite some time and learned after speaking with staff in the Assessor of Property Office that Marty Haynes greatly reduced the tax assessment for his private golf club, Creeks Bend in Hixson, while generally increasing the tax assessment on others. I think this is grossly unfair," Fairbanks wrote.
Fairbanks' accusation is based on the fact that the 2017 property value decrease saved the club, where Haynes hosted multiple campaign events, a little more than $3,900 annually, or more than a quarter of the $13,625 the club used to pay for property tax.
"The entire thing stinks to high heaven," Fairbanks wrote in a statement to the Times Free Press. "When taxpayers see this going on, it raises ethical questions and people start to think they won't be treated fairly with their tax assessment unless they're Marty's friend."
According to Haynes, the assessment was done based on a new land assessment completed before he took office.
"Reassessments are a four-year process and the bulk of the 2017 assessment was done by the previous administration before I took office [on Sept. 1, 2016]," Haynes said in a January interview. "About half of the golf club is underwater when it rains, and when the staff factored in the most recent [Federal Emergency Management Agency] flood map showing a portion of the golf course is underwater, the value naturally went down."
While the most recent FEMA map shows exactly what Haynes describes, the map was published in 2002.
"Look, nobody in this office was tasked with doing whole land assessments before Tom [Dillon] was hired to do so in 2015," Haynes said of the office's appraisal analyst. "When he took that job, the county had the first full land assessment since 1992 or something, and the flood plain was included, naturally changing the value of the property."
Spreadsheets shared with the paper by Haynes show that some work on the land assessment had certainly begun before Haynes assumed office, but also show that at least some notes on the golf course's assessment were made in Haynes' first weeks as assessor.
Fairbanks says Haynes' response is a "lame excuse" and leaves taxpayers to wonder about the equity of their assessments.
"Where are the work papers?" Fairbanks asked in an interview last week. "Why is there no evidence that this assessment took place before [Haynes] was in office?"
Haynes was unable to show work papers or other dated notes showing how or when the office finalized the Creeks Bend assessment, in part, he says, due to an update in the office's software.
"Anyone who knows my predecessor knows he didn't even have a computer on his desk," Haynes said of previous property assessor Bill Bennett. "I ran on the promise that I would make this office more transparent and improve technology, so the notes in our old software are unavailable. — I can tell you that note taking has gotten a whole lot better since then and that the 2021 appraisal, which is well underway, will be a lot better documented."
While Bennett died in 2018, longtime employees of the assessor's office corroborate Haynes' defense.
"Never in my 40 years in this office has [Haynes] or any other assessor asked me to do anybody a favor, and they know that I wouldn't," Jim Johnson, commercial properties director for the assessor's office, said. "He wouldn't ask that of me or anyone else and the accusation that he did is an abject lie."
Buddy Templeton, owner of Creeks Bend, agreed, calling Fairbanks' accusations "ridiculous and unfounded."
"I have known [Haynes] for years and I have never asked for a favor," Templeton said, angry about the newly surfaced accusations surrounding his property. "I'll tell you, and anyone will say that their property should go down so they can pay less property tax, but this wasn't because of [Haynes] and I certainly didn't ask anyone to lower the assessment based on our friendship."
The club's value went down by after Templeton informally appealed it before the 2013 appraisal, according to documents from the assessor's office, but the flood plain map, published more than a decade prior, was not referenced in the reassessment.
"We didn't have anyone doing land assessments before [Dillon] was hired, so we didn't get into that," said then residential director and now quality control director Gary Dawn. "So no, the FEMA map wasn't included in 2013."
Templeton, who donated $200 to Haynes' campaign and allowed Haynes to host two campaign events at the club during the 2016 election, said that he had not heard any accusations involving his property before a mailer and radio advertisement by Fairbanks hit on Monday.
The mailer shows Haynes' picture and alleges he's a "problem" in the assessor's office.
"As you might have heard in the local news or social media, Marty Haynes misused his office to greatly lower the tax assessment for his private golf club while raising it on others," the mailer reads. "Instead of going outside the Assessor's office for the valuation, which would have appeared more ethical, he had an employee inside the office do it for him. This raised eyebrows."
At a previously scheduled debate at the Hamilton County Pachyderm Club on Monday, Haynes concluded by addressing the mailer and claiming Fairbanks' tactics are "D.C. politics."
"I'll take full ownership of everything that comes out of my office and I'll stand behind the work of my employees," Haynes, visibly frustrated, told Fairbanks. "The assessment is fair and right, and Randy, if there's anything wrong with Creeks Bend, call the comptroller's office and report your findings."
Despite Haynes' campaign manager Vince Butler trying to end the debate, Fairbanks was given an extra chance to respond to Haynes during the first public address of the accusation.
"That ain't D.C. politics, I stand by it," Fairbanks said of his mailer. "Ladies and gentlemen, there's no lie in there. It's fact that [Haynes] went down on that [assessment]. As the voting public, you've got to decide: was it for a friend or — was it legitimate? That's your decision."
After the debate, Fairbanks told the Times Free Press that he had not filed a complaint with the Tennessee Comptroller's Office, which audits the assessor's office, because he was unfamiliar with the process.
"To be honest with you, I didn't know how that worked," he said. "I had no idea that was an option. If I can consult with someone here's what I'll do. We're planning on winning the election, but once I'm in office I will go to the comptroller and rectify whatever I can with the state."
Haynes said the lack of official complaint shows Fairbanks is "desperate" to make the race personal, after the former friends had a falling out during their shared time on the Hamilton County Commission.
"[Fairbanks] has spent his campaign, and even said publicly, that he's running against me, not for the office or on his own merit," Haynes said in an interview. "If he was concerned about this, like he says he was, before the campaign, he should have asked the state to look into it. That way, there would be no more question about this, rather than me having to prove myself innocent."
Haynes defended a similar accusation in 2018 when a mailer sent by the Committee to Elect Jonathan Mason accused Haynes of lowering the value of a home belonging to his girlfriend, Esther Helton, who was opposing Mason in the House District 30 Republican primary, during the 2017 appraisal. The Times Free Press later reported that the house in questioned belonged to Helton's ex-husband and Haynes both publicly denied and threatened legal action over the accusations.
The 2018 issue, Fairbanks says, makes suspicions about Haynes's assessments even higher.
"Assessor was the last thing I ever thought I would run for, but people really don't trust [Haynes]," Fairbanks said. "When I heard all this about Creeks Bend after what had happened earlier, I knew I had to run to restore trust to the [assessor's] office."
Early voting for the March 3 primary begins Wednesday. While there are no Democratic candidates, both candidates said during Monday's debate that they would support their opponent as the Republican nominee if a write-in candidate emerged.
Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @sarahgtaylor.