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Assessor: Halbert costing county $4M a year in lost tax revenue

As the state comptroller endorses a possible ouster of Wanda Halbert, a new dispute erupts between her office and the Shelby County Assessor’s Office.

The Shelby County Assessor’s Office contends Wanda Halbert “is costing Shelby County Government some $3 million to $4 million in lost revenue per year’’ by refusing to release records needed to tax local businesses. (Bill Dries/The Daily Memphian)

As Tennessee’s Nashville-based comptroller endorses a possible ouster of Wanda Halbert, the beleaguered Shelby County Clerk faces a fresh volley of allegations here in Memphis.

This one comes from Javier ‘Jay’ Bailey, chief administrative officer for the Assessor’s Office, who fired off an email late Friday, Aug. 26, contending Halbert “is costing Shelby County Government some $3 million to $4 million in lost revenue per year’’ by refusing to release records needed to tax local businesses.

Javier ‘Jay’ Bailey

“I am reaching out to you in hopes that you will find some amicable way to rectify this situation,’’ Bailey says in the email sent to Halbert’s chief administrative officer Bill Cash — but which notably excludes Halbert.

“Absent you and I working through this problem relatively quickly, on behalf of the Assessor I will have very little choice but to authorize more aggressive actions. In short, our offices have statutory obligations to the public. I want to do everything within my power to work with Ms. Halbert, but now I am called upon to make something happen relatively quickly.’’

The email renews an old and often-puzzling dispute that stretches back more than three years.

As the top manager for elected Assessor Melvin Burgess, Bailey first claimed in 2019 that Halbert had “cut off’’ access to a database containing details on licensed businesses in Shelby County. That data allows the Assessor’s Office to identify newly opened businesses and then inventory and tax their equipment.

The initial dispute came just months after Halbert’s election in 2018 as County Clerk, a position responsible for licensing businesses, registering automobiles, issuing marriage licenses and performing a range of other ministerial functions. Despite wide criticism, Halbert was re-elected by a large margin on Aug. 4 and will start her second term Sept. 1.

Reached by phone Friday, Halbert declined comment.

But she made it clear in a reply email to Bailey that she strenuously disagrees with his contentions.

“Not sure why I wasn’t included initially,’’ Halbert says in the opening line of the email sent at 10:42 p.m. Friday.

In turn, Halbert levels allegations of her own.

In the email, Halbert says she’s only shielding sensitive “restricted data’’ such as Social Security numbers that can’t be legally released. The rest of the data — including business names, owners and addresses — is readily available to the Assessor’s Office, she said.

Halbert said she cut off access to restricted information in consultation with the County Attorney’s Office after learning that the Assessor’s Office was accessing a secure website that housed sensitive information from a range of county offices, including the District Attorney’s Office.

“We have always been amenable to giving the data shared on the public business license,’’ Halbert says in her email — an assertion readily supported by a quick Google search.

A portion of the Clerk’s New Business List for August.

The Clerk’s Office provides a New Business List as part of the online services available on its website. As of Sunday that searchable database listed 373 new business openings in August. Each entry lists the name of the business, its product type, address, owner and date the license was issued.

But the Assessor’s Office says it needs more detail, including business license account numbers and contact information such as telephone numbers and email addresses, to efficiently identify new businesses and add them to the tax rolls.

Though some details are now available, for two years the Assessor could get no information at all from the Clerk, Bailey said.

“Currently, we are missing approximately 4,350 new businesses opening in Shelby County that should receive Tangible Personal Property assessments in accordance with Title 67 of the Tennessee statutory provisions,’’ Bailey said in the email. “Our estimates indicate that the shortage in property tax assessments is costing Shelby County Government some $3 million to $4 million in lost revenue per year.”

Bailey said in a phone interview the situation not only costs the county tax revenue, but presents a problem of unequal treatment.

“It’s serious,’’ he said. “One of the reasons it’s so serious is you can’t tax other people who are similarly situated and not assess these folks.’’

Bailey said he hopes Assessor’s Office attorney Dedrick Brittenum can meet with Halbert to resolve their dispute.

The dispute re-erupted Friday just hours after Tennessee Comptroller Jason Mumpower released a statement encouraging local authorities to consider ousting Halbert from office.

Jason Mumpower

“This is a local matter, and I believe the mayor and county commission should continue to explore what legal remedies may be available to help better serve Shelby countians,’’ Mumpower said in the statement.

“State law does afford local officials the ability to pursue an ouster, and it may be time for them to consider whether or not that is appropriate.”

Mumpower was responding to a request earlier this month from the Shelby County Commission asking the State of Tennessee to temporarily seize control of the county clerk’s license plate distribution operations. That request came amid a months-long backlog in Halbert’s office in the issuance of auto license plates.

Halbert closed her office last week with the stated purpose of catching up on that backlog, but drew more fire from Mumpower who announced that she was on vacation in Jamaica while her employees toiled to catch up on the backlog.

Mumpower said in his Friday statement that “there is no statutory authority or precedent that would allow the State of Tennessee to take over the operational duties of the clerk’s office,’’ calling instead for local officials to take action.

“The Shelby County Clerk must work harder to serve her customers,’’ Mumpower said. “I certainly share the frustration of the citizens, businesses, and the numerous elected officials who have spoken out or have been impacted by the clerk’s inability to get the job done.’’

Roughly three hours later, Bailey sent his email to Cash.

Cash later told a reporter he knows little about the dispute. He only became Halbert’s CAO in September 2021, he said, and is unfamiliar with the issue Bailey is raising.

“I will sit down with (Halbert) on Monday and see what it’s all about,’’ he said.

Cash said he doesn’t understand why the Assessor’s Office couldn’t get the same information from the state, which shares business information with the County Clerk.

“It seems so convoluted,’’ he said.

Records obtained by the Institute for Public Service Reporting over the weekend show the dispute first developed in June 2019 when Assessor’s Office deputy administrator Barbara Palmer contacted Halbert seeking assistance “getting the monthly New and Closed business listing.’’

“For years we’ve received your monthly printouts,’’ Palmer wrote in an email, explaining that Clerk’s Office employee Waylon Wininger had provided the information. But Wininger had since retired, Palmer said. Before he left, “he attempted to give us a login and password to pull the files down ourselves,’’ she wrote.

The Assessor’s direct access to the data became the source of major friction between the two offices.

Attached to Palmer’s email were screenshots listing the login information to a Shelby County government file server containing the Clerk’s new and closed business listings. Another screenshot captured an actual image of the new business listing, which in addition to the name of each business, address and owner included account numbers and licensing dates.

Palmer indicated in her email that the Assessor’s Office no longer was getting that full format, but instead was receiving a more abbreviated version in a CSV spreadsheet format that omitted account numbers and licensing dates.

The format “does not contain all of the data that we need to add the accounts to the tax rolls,’’ Palmer wrote.

“We have not had a (full) listing since February 2, 2019 and are really behind on our discovery of new accounts.’’

The dispute grew intense that fall when Bailey wrote County Attorney Marlinee Iverson and threatened to exercise seldom-used subpoena powers if Halbert didn’t give his office the information it wanted.

“I am officially issuing a demand for the complete records of accounts for all business licenses obtained or terminated in Shelby County from January 1, 2019 through September 16, 2019,’’ Bailey said in the Sept. 17, 2019 letter, writing that Halbert “has officially terminated the Assessor’s access to this data.’’

In an email 10 days later Halbert said “we have discovered a number of confidential customer data has potentially been shared and we are working with the (state) Department of Revenue to ensure we know what can be legally be shared and establish data use forms and memorandums of understanding agreements.’’

Suddenly, the dispute appeared resolved.

The Commercial Appeal reported in October 2019 that despite earlier threats by the Assessor’s Office to file suit, the Assessor’s Office was “ opens in a new windowbacking off” its demands.

Bailey conceded then in a letter that digital access to the clerk’s database was “inappropriate as a matter of law’’ and that his office was seeking a memorandum of understanding for access to the state’s data.

But tensions flared again months later. According to Bailey, it happened after the Assessor’s Office gained access to the needed information through a state data portal.

“When Ms. Halbert found out … she cut that off as well,’’ Bailey said in his Friday email to Cash.

Though the Assessor’s Office can discover the opening of new businesses through other means, including code enforcement and utility records, the primary source is through the clerk’s database, Bailey said.

Reached Sunday by phone, Palmer said the loss of Clerk’s data was devastating.

“That’s our main source of pickup,’’ she said. When we lost that access we began to fall behind.’’

Without access to the Clerk’s database the Assessor’s staff has had to hustle and work very inefficiently trying to assemble tax accounts, she said.

We started using Google. We started using the Business Journal, anything we could get our hands on to try and get any information of a new business coming out, you know, to try and make sure we had them on the rolls.’’

This story first appeared at dailymemphian.com under an exclusive use agreement with The Institute.

Written By

Marc Perrusquia is the director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis, where graduate students learn investigative and explanatory journalism skills working alongside professionals. He has won numerous state and national awards for government watchdog, social justice and political reporting.

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