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Campaign signs for the two Hamilton County assessor of property candidates - Marty Haynes and Randy Fairbanks - are seen on South Terrace on Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020, in Chattanooga, Tenn. / Staff photo by Allison Collins

This story was updated at 6:43 p.m. on Jan. 11, 2019, to include additional comments.

The pair were friends for decades and often allies in their time on the Hamilton County Commission, but now Property Assessor Marty Haynes and Commission Chairman Randy Fairbanks are locked in a heated and deeply personal campaign for the March property assessor primary election.

Haynes, a conservative elected as property assessor in 2016, is running to maintain his spot on the merits of his time in office. His fellow conservative and former colleague, Fairbanks, is running to restore trust in the office, which he believes Haynes has tarnished.

 

'The friendship cooled'

The rift between the pair began while Fairbanks and Haynes served as District 1 and District 3 county commissioners, respectively. As similarly conservative, longtime friends, they had supported one another as commissioners, but the relationship soured as the commission divided over discretionary spending.

After a couple of years, an effort led by County Mayor Jim Coppinger to end the fund, which gave each of nine districts $100,000 in discretionary funds annually, prevailed in 2015. That rocked commissioners, including Fairbanks, who had sought to protect the fund.

"That's really the key thing, as I understand it," Haynes, who opposed the fund, said. "We disagreed on that issue, and it got more personal than it should have. Then the friendship cooled."

The fund itself, which has since been replaced by a smaller annual amount and is controversial on the commission still today, was only part of the divide, according to Fairbanks.

"That was definitely a part of it," Fairbanks said of the discretionary spending vote. "But when [Haynes] ran for [assessor], he went on about how he was against discretionary spending and that made him conservative, but then he came to me and asked if I would spend some of my discretionary funds on the sheriff during his campaign. That made him upset."

Now, while Fairbanks says he used to be a Haynes supporter and Haynes says he'd still answer a call for help by Fairbanks, the two are in a battle of character for the assessor's office.

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District 1 Hamilton County Commissioner Randy Fairbanks is seen during a County Commission meeting in the County Commission assembly room at the Hamilton County Courthouse on Wednesday, April 17, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tenn. / Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter

'Retire in this office'

In an interview about his campaign, Haynes, a proud native of Hixson, touted his fiscal responsibility, innovative leadership and experience as property assessor as his qualifications to maintain his role.

"I've got a record as assessor. I enjoyed my time as a county commissioner, and I had a whole life in sales. But now, as assessor, I'm working with everyone in the county. I enjoy the job far more than I thought I would," Haynes said. "Now we've made a more efficient and effective office, and I want to keep doing this and continue to improve this critical office."

In just over three years in office, Haynes has been awarded assessor of the year (2018) and the leadership award (2019) from the Tennessee Association of Assessing Officers; gotten the office to a three star certification from the state; returned more than half a million dollars to the county general fund, lowering the office's overall budget; led the state in professional training of appraisers; hired the county's first female property appraiser and switched the office to a more modern software and hardware system.

"We have modernized this office, and everyone who runs says, 'accountability and transparency,' and I probably get sick of hearing it. But that was my one key thing here and on the commission," Haynes said of providing online records in both offices to promote transparency. "I've got experience now, and I know what the job entails. Technology and budget are important and have been improved, but this office takes honesty, character and willingness to work with folks, and I am happy to keep doing that work, and I hope to retire in this office."

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Hamilton County Assessor of Property candidates Marty Haynes participates in a forum at the Kiwanis Club meeting Tuesday, June 21, 2016 at the Mountain City Club. / Staff photo by Angela Lewis Foster

'Restore the trust'

If you ask Fairbanks, the need for integrity is exactly why Haynes needs to be removed from office.

"This is one of the most important offices to the people of Hamilton County, because it affects how much they pay in property tax and impacts their pocketbooks directly," Fairbanks said. "And there are several little issues that have popped up and shook my trust in [Haynes'] ability to make good, accurate, fair decisions."

Fairbanks, a certified public accountant, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga graduate, native of Red Bank and two-term county commissioner, is willing to vacate his commission seat with half a term left, if elected, to stop what he terms the "distrust" of the property assessor's office caused by Haynes.

"Before I decided to run for assessor, I did a professional poll, and what that poll told us is what I had heard from people in the county. Mr. Haynes has lost the trust of the people of Hamilton County," Fairbanks said. "When the people don't trust you, they don't believe they're being treated fairly."

While he did not share the details of the poll completed by Multiquest, he said it asked questions of the entire county that showed a majority of residents to be "distrustful" of Haynes' practices as assessor.

Fairbanks also said he heard from current and former employees of the assessor's office who took issue with Haynes' leadership and the significant turnover since he took office.

"I think the turnover comes from the lack of professionalism in Mr. Haynes' background," Fairbanks said. "He was a salesman before he went into office, and I just don't think he has the professional background to efficiently run an office."

Fairbanks said his own leadership skills and trustworthiness make him the right candidate to replace Haynes.

"I have built a successful CPA business on people trusting me, and I have been elected to the county commission to represent District 1 twice on people trusting me to be fair to them," Fairbanks said of his qualifications. "I've also been elected by my colleagues on the commission. They've shown their trust in me by electing me twice as their chairman. I feel I can restore the trust and fairness to the assessor's office."

If elected, Fairbanks would assume office in August, leaving the commission with just over half of his term left.

He said he is confident his fellow commissioners would appoint a qualified conservative to take over his term and that the people of District 1 would elect a strong leader to replace him in the 2022 commission election.

Haynes said Fairbanks' accusations were an unfounded and a consequence of the pair's strained relationship.

"My opponent's unfounded criticism goes back to our disagreement over using taxpayer funds to support causes of his choice, rather than essential needs of county government," Haynes wrote late Saturday. "The voters elected me as Assessor in 2016 based on my record as a conservative and work experience in the private business sector – both of which have help me lead this office that just received its first Three-Star Certification for Excellence in Operation from the Tennessee Assessor Association."

Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at staylor@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @sarahgtaylor.

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