Township assessors' pay cut in half

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By Kevin Koelling, Managing Editor

One questions legality of county assuming personal-property valuation duties

TELL CITY - Township assessors will get only half the pay budgeted for them this year despite their claims they normally perform the bulk of their duties by June 1, well before the July 1 elimination of their jobs mandated by legislation enacted this year.

"My personal feeling is that one-half would be fair," said Perry County Council President Pete Franzman in reopening an issue discussed in meetings since January. "It's pretty hard not to pay someone for the first half of the year they were on the job."

Property-assessment duties performed by township officials statewide are to shift to county-assessor offices July 1 as a result of legislation enacted in March. As The News previously reported in several stories, Perry County Council members had to seek guidance from state officials on how to make the change. The main question was how to determine what portion of their pay for the year should be paid to them, and how much should be transferred to the county assessor's office to help fund her increased workload.

The entire amounts budgeted to each township have appeared on agendas for several county-council meetings as appropriations to be transferred to the budget overseen by County Assessor Mendy Ward, but the council repeatedly deferred that action until their regular meeting Thursday.

By law, elected officials' salaries cannot be reduced, Franzman noted, a reference to the fact elected township trustees also perform deputy-assessor duties for their areas. Regarding money budgeted for their assessment duties, however, "you can reduce (it) by whatever amount you care to," he told the other council members.

Except for Troy Township, with its much-higher number of properties, deputy-assessor salaries set for 2008 ranged from $885 for Leopold Township to $2,282 for Anderson Township. The salary for Troy Township Assessor Brenda Powers, who does hold the certification necessary to retain real-property duties, was budgeted at $9,387.

Township officials attending the meeting said under normal circumstances, they complete their work each year by June 1, suggesting they should be paid the full amounts budgeted. County Auditor Connie Berger confirmed the point, saying the deputy assessors normally submitted claims after filing their paperwork before the June 1 deadlines, then were paid in the following pay cycles.

Complicating the issue this year was a requirement that the officials attain certifications through training they said they couldn't afford to attend. Their failures to do so as of the end of last year made them ineligible to perform real-property assessments this year, so those duties went to the county assessor. Their personal-property assessment duties weren't affected by the certification requirement, but they said Ward prevented them from performing those.

"I don't think what the state legislature did was just, cutting (the positions) off in mid-year," Franzman said.

The local officials had accepted the January loss of real-property duties. The others, they feel, were usurped at the county level.

"I wonder how legal the whole thing has been," Union Township Trustee Betty Labhart told the council. "This whole year, I haven't got a single form to assess anything. Who decided to get rid of the township assessors as of Jan. 1?"

She said she'd talked to Ted Knee of the state Department of Local Government Finance earlier in the day, who told her the township officials retained the duty to perform personal-property assessments.

The field supervisor for the DLGF's assessment staff, Knee said Friday he merely told Labhart the Indiana Code says township assessors are responsible for the assessments. "If they don't do it, the county assessor takes over," he said. Whether the county has the authority to simply take the work away is a legal question he said an attorney must answer.

"We were ready to do our jobs," Anderson Township Trustee Becky Hagedorn told the council. "Why are you taking our pay away? Most of us have our spouse as our deputy because we don't make squat. It doesn't change until July 1; if we'd been allowed to do it, it would be done. (Ward) wouldn't allow us to do it."

"When you give that much power to one or two people, things go south real quick," Labhart said. She added the council's action would mean "taking the money and giving it to somebody (Ward) wants to have it. How legal was it for her to tell us how much we'd get? I was told to talk to the county attorney."

"I thought half would be fair," Franzman said, "but after hearing you, you have a point."

"They made the statement they weren't allowed to do the job," Councilman Merle Doogs said, questioning whether the township officials should be paid at all.

Hagedorn and Labhart told the council personal-property assessments, which include some mobile homes, comprised the bulk of their duties.

"I called in January and was told it would be taken care of," Hagedorn said.

Franzman said the DLGF instructed the council that whatever money from the township assessors' budgets had not been spent was to be transferred to the county assessor.

He and Berger were unavailable Friday morning, but Councilman Bob Ramsbottom said the transfer should have included money left in township-assessors' budgets as of July 1.

"I think they turned it in a little early," he said.

Franzman asked each council member for an opinion.

"I think we ought to be fair and pay the (deputy assessors) half their money," Councilman Alan Cassidy said. "I don't think it's fair that we pay all that was budgeted."

Changing the subject, councilman Chet Mathena said he thought a $2,000 additional appropriation for the county assessor's budget for a laptop computer was excessive.

"You can get them cheaper almost anywhere," he said.

Berger explained the computer will include a geographic-information system.

"That drives the price up," Franzman said, adding, "$2,000 is an estimate; this is not a laptop you can go get at a store."

"I feel like if we give them half, that would be appropriate," Ramsbottom said. "We could not give them anything."

Councilman Ryan Daum agreed half would be fair. "There's no way of knowing how much work you do in X amount of time," he said. "I don't know anything about what you do. You say you get your work done in six months. (Others) could come in and say you're just telling me that to get the money."

Councilman Steve Goodson wasn't at the meeting. Those who were voted to pay the deputy assessors half the salaries budgeted for this year.

"We all agree assessment for the whole year has been a dirty deal," Labhart said after the meeting. "We were pushed out starting in January with mobile-home assessments. It shouldn't have happened like this. Other counties didn't have these problems."

"I understand what they're doing; it's the way the state says it has to be done," Powers said, "but it seems an extravagant amount of money in (Ward's) budget. I know she has to document her spending, but if she doesn't spend it, she won't get it next year."

She didn't blame the council.

"It's not their fault," she said, "it's (Gov.) Mitch Daniels'."

Daniels was a proponent of both HEA 1001 and recommendations of a committee he assembled to examine local-government efficiency. The elimination of the township level of government was among those recommendations.

Ward was out of the office Friday morning and unavailable for comment.