CANTON, Ga. - Here's a first – a government official fired for being too nice to taxpayers.
What happened in Cherokee County could happen in any Georgia community. It involves an obscure government panel called the Board of Equalization.
If you think your local county tax assessor has valued your property too high, you can appeal to the BOE, made up not of government bureaucrats but regular citizens. The BOE can side with the county or adjust the value of your property down, ultimately saving you money on your property taxes.
Enter former Woodstock mayor Bill Dewrell. He finds himself in a rare place -- one of the only people ever kicked off a board of equalization.
"I know we were fair with every single case we looked at," he insisted. "I know that."
The Cherokee County Grand Jury thought otherwise. The panel examined hundreds of cases heard by the Cherokee BOE in the last two years, ultimately deciding that Dewrell had favored the taxpayer far too often. The Grand Jury accused him of “failing to act impartially” and said he was “technically incompetent” to be a member of the Board of Equalization. He was ordered immediately removed from the rotation.
Chief appraiser Steve Swindell said he didn't ask the Grand Jury to remove anyone, but he's glad Dewrell is gone.
"If it was determined that the powers that be that he was not acting in good faith and properly then sure," he agreed.
For years Swindell had filed complaints with the Clerk of Court, one email insisting a "rogue bunch of BOE members" was undermining the fairness of who pays taxes in Cherokee County.
The FOX 5 I-Team examined the data provided to the Grand Jury for its investigation. BOE members rotate among various three-member panels. Last year, they heard 304 appeals, ruling against the Assessor's office about 32 percent of the time. Of all the BOE members, Dewrell was the taxpayer's best friend. His panels ruled against the county the most: 64 percent of the time. All of those decisions were unanimous.
The Grand Jury report also highlighted Dewrell's original application to be a Board of Equalization member. He wrote his hobby was “helping people save money on their tax bill.”
He told us he suspended that hobby once he joined the board.
“Are you siding more with the taxpayer because you don't like the idea of paying taxes?" I asked.
"Randy, no," Dewrell insisted. "This is not siding with one side. We take the evidence from each side.”
He said when he favored the taxpayer it was because they were typically better prepared than the tax assessor's office. We watched one BOE hearing after Dewrell was removed from the rotation.
Property owner Ursula Cox came loaded with documents and research. She wasn't happy that the tax assessor’s office bumped up the value of her property by more than 40 percent.
“Nothing has happened to increase my property's value," she politely explained.
The board sided with her, increasing the value of her farm by only 12 percent. Put this one in the loss column for the tax assessor.
"Do you think the problem is you guys didn't work hard enough to make your case?" I asked about all the times his office has lost.
"I think we did," Swindell maintained. "I think we made very strong cases this year."
Swindell says his office has lost to taxpayers who show up with only a personal opinion – my taxes are too high.
“It could send a message that hey, the rest of the 97,000 folks out there, we need to appeal because we're getting free gifts from the Board of Equalization," he explained.
He does admit requesting certain BOE members not be scheduled for hearings for reasons other than conflicts of interest. Taxpayers have often been granted the same requests. That practice has now stopped. Both sides get whoever is randomly scheduled to hear cases that day.
Lowering someone's property value means someone else winds up paying a larger share in taxes.
“Do you still want to help people save money on their taxes?" I asked Dewrell.
"Absolutely," he quickly responded. “If I'm going to be off the board, heck yeah I'll be helping people. Left and right."