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Political campaigns are often full of interesting claims, but this one had us chirping.
Larry Gause, candidate for chairman of Gwinnett County’s Board of Commissioners, recently sent out a flier and created a website full of claims against opponent Charlotte Nash.
The general theme is that Nash, Gwinnett’s administrator from 1995 to 2004, wants to be chair to "feather" the nest of herself and friends. He cites evidence such as Atlanta Journal-Constitution articles that reported a temporary arrangement to pay a retired police chief half of his $138,000 annual salary for a homeland security job that some county commissioners were unaware of.
Most of the claims were not new, but one piqued our interest. Gause accused Nash of using a "loophole" to get huge property tax breaks.
"How does she do it? She pretends to be a chicken farmer," Gause wrote.
Nash laughed off the accusation in a telephone interview, calling it "typical campaign stuff."
"It’s a part of the process," she added.
Gwinnett is Georgia’s second highest-populated county, and the chairman is the most politically powerful position. A special election for the position, previously held by Charles Bannister, who resigned under pressure, is scheduled for Tuesday.
Ethics are a big issue in Gwinnett County politics. One sitting county commissioner, Kevin Kenerly, was indicted last year on bribery charges. Bannister resigned his position last year amid the grand jury investigation that resulted in Kenerly’s indictment. Kenerly voluntarily suspended himself after the indictment. His term ended in December.
The race, which has received little attention, is heating up. Norcross resident Joe Newton has filed a complaint with the county’s Board of Assessors, charging Nash is receiving "improper and unjustified tax credits" and wants an investigation.
Nash owns two properties under scrutiny. Both are located in Dacula.
The larger property is more than 100 acres and has a market value of about $1.1 million, county tax records show. The records show Nash received about $14,000 in exemption savings last year and paid $1,862.74.
Gause said Nash is wrongly using a conservation use assessment exemption to get the tax break. The land was once a chicken farm, but it is now used to grow timber -- a legal exemption for the property, according to Gwinnett Tax Assessor Steven Pruitt, who has not endorsed a candidate in the race. The exemptions date back to 2005, county officials said.
Nash and her sister inherited the land after their mother died. They applied for the exemption, which gives tax breaks to individuals who use land for conservation purposes for at least 10 years. Land owners who develop the property must pay back twice the tax savings.
Pruitt said there are 1,046 properties with exemptions in Gwinnett. Pruitt said you can’t get an exemption if you have just one tree on the property or one horse. Properties larger than 2,000 acres cannot get an exemption. The exemptions must be approved by the county’s Board of Assessors.
We toured the site Thursday and saw scores of hardwood trees in the distance, ready for spring. Gause says Nash is not honoring the spirit of the assessment law -- arguing there’s little timber production going on there. Pruitt, however, said it could take 15 to 20 years before it is time to cut and sell the timber. Others we talked to agreed.
The other property is about 14 acres. It has a market value of $463,500, according to county records. Nash and her family received about $4,000 in exemptions for the property in 2010, records show. They paid about $2,800 in property taxes.
Pruitt said Nash has an agricultural exemption for that property because it is a farm. Gause told us Nash is playing loose with the exemption rules.
"I observed the property [twice]," Gause wrote in an e-mail. "There were no animals on the land. Not a horse, cow, pig or chicken. There were no crops growing. There was no farming equipment. I’ve worked on farms. I know what farms look like. Neither property is a farm."
We also checked out that site Thursday and didn’t see any animals there. Pruitt said he has seen horses there and notes there is a barn.
"That’s how it qualifies [for an exemption]," Pruitt said.
A short biography of Nash on a government website says she and her husband live "on a chicken farm in the Harbins Community south of Dacula." But that refers to a long-ago use of the property, Nash said. She said she has never claimed to be a chicken farmer, and her property tax exemptions have nothing to do with poultry.
So who’s right here? Nash says the land was once a chicken farm, but it is not anymore. Nash has an exemption for agricultural purposes for the smaller property -- where she is registered to vote -- and an exemption for timber purposes for the larger plot of land, the county assessor told us. The assessor’s office was unable by Thursday to share the original exemption paperwork with us.
Gause’s real point is whether Nash actually deserves the agricultural exemption. But he bases his argument on the claim that she "pretends to be a chicken farmer." We found no evidence of that.
We rate his statement as False.
Larry Gause for Chairman, "Charlotte’s Documents"
E-mail from Larry Gause, March 9, 2011; telephone interview with Gause, March 9, 2011
Georgia Department of Revenue, Rules on Conservation Use Assessment for Agricultural or Timber Land
Telephone interview with Charlotte Nash, March 7, 2011
Telephone interviews with Gwinnett County Tax Assessor Steven Pruitt, March 7, 8 and 10, 2011
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