Property tax appeals board seeks new attorney

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By Lou Elliott Jones

The board that hears citizens' appeals of their property appraisal and assessment is looking for a new attorney.

The Value Adjustment Board, made up of appointed members from the Levy County Commission, Levy County School Board and representatives for homeowners and commercial owners, decided on Wednesday, Feb. 6, to request proposals from attorneys.

The action effectively ended the contract with attorney Ronnie Stevens of Bronson and came after discussion of invoices from Stevens and County Clerk Danny Shipp that some board members felt were too high.

VAB Chair Ryan Bell, also chair of the county commission, opened the discussion of Stevens' bill asking, “Did it cost $40 to request the bills from the clerk?”

Bell was referring to Stevens' bill for 0.2 of an hour of work to send an email to Shipp asking for him to send the VAB's bills for the month. At $195 per hour for attorney services, the bill for the email was $39.

Stevens defended the bill telling Bell, a restaurant owner, that while he might get a one-line email asking for the inventory of pizza boxes and cheese, there is more behind the scenes work involved than just typing an answer. “You would go back and count your pizza boxes and cheese,” he said. “Then you would come back and write an email.”

Bell said he had a hard time justifying Steven's bill for 49 hours of work on preparing for and advising the board for a total of $9,555.

The bill “is a lot for what we saw” in the meeting that Bell characterized as chaotic because the board was hearing an appeal without training and could not get answers to questions. 

“My concern if for the project's cost,” Bell said. “If we have 25 appeals next year we're on course for a $35,000 year.”

Bell said Stevens' annual bills for the VAB were $7,029 in 2008, $5,196 in 2009, $5157 in 2010, $7,449 in 2011 and $9,350 in 2012. 

Levy County Property Appraiser Oz Barker said there were no petitions appealing property valuations in 2009 and 2010 because his office settled the complaints.

VAB member Paige Brookins, school board chair, said Stevens' contract which automatically renews annually on March 1, unless the VAB gives him a 90-day notice of termination, “is a problem.”

Stevens said he would waive the 90-day notice. 

Board member Mike Joyner, a county commissioner, suggested putting a cap on the fees Stevens could charge but that suggestion went nowhere.

After discussing rewriting Stevens' contract, the board did not act on it. 

The board finally voted 3-2 to have Stevens to write up a formal request for proposals to be advertised. Bell said he wanted Stevens to submit a proposal because Stevens was knowledgable about the process and “when we advertised before he was the only one who applied.”

Board member Skipper Henderson, a title agency owner and commercial representative, and Joyner voted against the measure, while Bell, Brookins and Brandy Horne, homeowner representative, voted to seek applications from attorneys. 

As for the bill from Shipp's office. Bell said he was upset the clerk's office charged the board $1 per page to provide copies of the VAB manual. After discussing it with the clerk, the $720 bill would be reduced to reflect a 15 cents per page charge, the usual charge for copying a document. Official documents cost $1 per page. 

Bell said he was raising the questions about expenditures because the board's budget is only $10,500 and could drop to $10,000 in the next budget year.