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Kanawha assessor candidates clash over friendliness of office

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Republican Forest Carper said his own bad experiences in dealing with the Kanawha County assessor's office influenced his decision to run for the job of assessor.

But Democrat Sallie Robinson, who has worked in the office since she was 18 years old, said she has the experience and background to keep track of the county's tax books.

Carper and Robinson sat down with Gazette editors on Tuesday to talk about how they would run the assessor's office if elected in November.

"It's common sense, going into an office like this, that I don't know as much as Sallie, because she's been doing it for 28 years," Carper said.

"I think I can better operate the assessor's office," he said. "Sallie has 28 years of experience, but experience is not necessarily an asset in management."

Carper, a builder and developer, said he has been self-employed since 1980 and has the management skills needed to oversee an office that keeps track of the county's tax system. If elected, he said he would surround himself with people who know how the assessor's office works.

Robinson countered that she has done almost every job in the assessor's office. For the past 10 years, she has been assistant to Assessor Phyllis Gatson, taking part in the daily running of the office.

"I do have management experience," she said.

Robinson decided to run for assessor after Gatson announced earlier this year that she would not seek re-election for health reasons.

Under Gatson's direction, Robinson has said the assessor's office has become an efficient, professional organization praised by state officials. Still, she said, "I believe that everyone has their own ideas, and should have.

"I don't have any intentions of firing anyone," she said, but added that she would make some changes in the office if elected.

Carper said he would try to make the assessor's office friendlier and more open to taxpayers if elected. He said many members of the public don't understand how the tax system works, and said some employees in the office aren't very helpful.

He said it should be made easy for taxpayers to meet with tax officials to work out problems. He said he and others he has talked to have had unpleasant experiences with county tax officials.

"Courtesy and respect is one of the biggest aspects of my campaign," he said.

Robinson disagreed, saying the assessor's employees meet with taxpayers all the time to work out differences or discrepancies in their tax bills. In recent years, the number of taxpayers appealing to the Kanawha County Commission's Board of Review and Equalization has slowed to a trickle. The board is the last step for taxpayers to appeal a tax bill with which they disagree.

"I resent the comment that we are not friendly in the assessor's office," she said.

Carper has recently been in a dispute with the assessor's office over tax appraisals on rental property he owns. Carper said he has found staff for the assessor hard to reach and hard to work with, but Robinson said Carper has not supplied information assessors have asked for to look into his assessments.

Carper and Robinson took few jabs at one another on Tuesday, but the candidates' meeting was not completely without sparring.

"There were rumors that if I was elected, I would fire or eliminate a lot of people in the assessor's office," Carper said. "That's not true."

He said he sent letters to employees in the office telling them he was not planning on firing anyone who supported Robinson. Robinson, who got one of the letters herself, took the mailing as a personal affront.

Recently, a complaint was filed with the state Ethics Commission alleging Robinson was using her office for campaigning. Buddy Jones, who works for Carper's campaign, filed the complaint.

"I feel that it's a defamation of character," Robinson said of the complaint. "I think he's attacked me personally.

"There's not a more honest person in the world than Phyllis Gatson," Robinson said. "If I were running a campaign out of my office, she'd know it."

Reach Rusty Marks at rustymarks@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1215.


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