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Questions about tax abatement

Companies that have received tax abatements in Harrison County as an incentive to expand or to locate here have been asked to appear at the county council’s June 28 planning session.
‘We want to see if they still meet the requirements’ for a property tax abatement, said council president Gary Davis at Monday night’s regular meeting of the council.
Questions concerning the tax abatements have arisen in recent months due to the apparent financial woes of Keller Manufacturing Co. and Tower Automotive’s lack of a new production contract. But that’s not the reason for inviting the companies to appear.
Davis said the state has shifted the responsibility of reviewing reports filed annually by companies with a property tax abatement.
Deputy auditor Carolyn Lowe, who handles property tax abatements for the auditor, said invitations to appear were sent to 15 companies, several of which own equipment that is leased to companies here, like Tower Automotive.
Tax abatements deducted from the assessed valuation of property in Harrison County this year (2003 property taxes payable in 2004) total $51.6 million, Lowe said. Of that, $1 million is for real estate owned by the companies and $50 million is for personal property, either owned or leased by the companies.
If a company is not in compliance with the guidelines allowing tax abatements, or if the company is not keeping its promises (such as employing a promised number of people), then Davis believes there is a method to recoup those taxes or cancel the abatement. ‘That’s something we will have to pursue with our attorney,’ Davis said.
In other matters, the council:
‘ Denied a request from Auditor Pat Wolfe for $3,000 to hire an independent computer consultant (not a vendor) to review computer programs used in her office and determine the needs, especially to meet a new program the state is expected to mandate next year.
Wolfe said that Manatron, the company representing nearly every county in the state on computers, has sold out to a Canadian company that is unfamiliar with the programs.
Davis said he agrees a consultant is needed for the whole county system, but he thinks the council and commissioners should get together for a work session to determine ‘how this should be handled.’ He added, ‘I think we need to do something; I’m just not happy at how we arrived at the choice.’
Wolfe replied: ‘This is just for the auditor, not the whole county. I thought you were for me bringing in someone.’
Wolfe said she was told by the commissioners to find someone who could do the work that wasn’t connected to a vendor. The applicant, she said, is a Harrison County resident who cut his hourly rate from $50 to $30 ‘out of the goodness of his heart.’
Councilman Kenneth Saulman’s motion to deny the request, seconded by Ralph Sherman, passed 4-2 with Alvin Brown and Carl (Buck) Mathes casting the dissenting votes without comment.
Wolfe said the record of the meeting will reflect that she disagrees with the council’s decision.
‘ Approved more than $5,000 from riverboat funds for new office furniture in the surveyor’s office and Harrison Township assessor’s office.
‘Approved $332,087 for Wolpert Engineering to develop contour maps.
‘ Approved $102,657 for a new ambulance for the Harrison County Emergency Medical Services. EMS director Gary Kleeman told the council that a grant application has been approved for an automatic defibrillator to be installed at the courthouse. Training to operate the equipment will be conducted on June 28.
‘ Renewed a contract with Frank Cummings to advise the council on tax matters. Cummings, a retired state tax auditor, will charge the same as last year ‘ $7,000. ‘Frank does an excellent job,’ Davis said.
‘ Heard a report from Harrison County Veterans Service Officer Marion Wallace that the number of veterans in Harrison County has risen nine percent, to 3,500. He said those veterans receive $7 million a year in federal compensation for pensions or medical expenses.
Wallace said many times veterans aren’t aware that they qualify for assistance. Anytime someone is in doubt, they should call anyway, he said (the number is 738-8166).
‘Unanimously approved a transfer of $20,000 from the telephone budget to the commissioners’ budget to pay a commission to a person reviewing telephone bills to determine charges the county should not have been billed and to recover those amounts.
Davis asked if another company had been consulted and said he would prefer to hear the person’s presentation before approving the compensation. ‘She came to us,’ said J.R. Eckart, the chair of the county commissioners.
‘ Heard a report from the commissioners that bids received on the repair of the old downtown jail were all over budget and more money will be needed before a contract can be awarded.
‘ Heard a report from Davis, Councilman Carl Duley and Councilwoman Rhonda Rhoads, all of whom attended a recent called meeting of council members statewide. They said Harrison County won’t qualify for reimbursement of the costs of purchasing digital voting equipment. That’s because the purchase was made prior to the problems with punch card voting in Florida in the 2000 presidential race. Harrison County will, however, be eligible for reimbursement for handicapped accessible machines that must be purchased for each polling place, Davis said.