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Lincoln tax errors could cost schools $880,000

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Lincoln County Assessor Josh Brumfield is trying to correct deficiencies in the county's tax assessments that could cost the Lincoln County school board close to $880,000 in penalties.

Last month, Brumfield met with state tax officials to confirm something he already knew: Lincoln County failed five out of six categories on a statewide tax audit.

But the worst news was failure to comply with a state law requiring counties to bring their tax assessments to 90 percent of market value for properties.

In 2007, Brumfield said, legislators passed the law to try to force counties to more consistently assess property. To put teeth in the law, they decided county school boards would be penalized if assessors fail to reach the 90 percent target.

"The previous administration just didn't keep property valuations close to market value," said Brumfield, who was elected last November and has been in office since January.

"We're way off," he said.

Brumfield said his predecessor as assessor, Tracy Dempsey, did not do much to comply with the state requirement. As a result, Lincoln County's tax assessments stand at an average of about 51 percent of fair market value for homes and other property.

Dempsey, elected assessor in 2008, could not be reached for comment on Monday.

Brumfield said the failure to adjust Lincoln County's tax assessments over the past few years could mean $878,000 in penalties to the county school system.

Lincoln County school board Treasurer Birdie Gandy said an almost $880,000 cut to the school board's $44.8 million budget could be devastating. If the penalties kick in, "we'd need to look at probably closing some schools and laying off a lot of people," she said.

"There's no way we could function."

Brumfield said he has talked with state tax officials, lawmakers and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's office to see if there's some way state officials can create an exemption for Lincoln County or give the county more time to adjust tax assessments.

"I basically asked them to look at the unique situation we inherited here in Lincoln County," Brumfield said. "We're not saying we're not going to follow state code, just give us time to do it.

"I think that punishing a school board financially because of the success or failure of an assessor is not fair to [school officials]."

Brumfield is now forced with the prospect of raising Lincoln County's tax assessments to 90 percent of market value over the course of a single year. That approach will mean huge tax increases for some property owners.

"I don't know if I have the resources and time to get there," he said.

Brumfield would prefer to spread the tax increases out over three or four years, as he said should have been done after the new law was passed in 2007.

"This storm's been coming for six years, and we haven't even barred the windows," he said.

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


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