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VOL. 123 | NO. 157 | Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Trustee, Assessor Look Ahead To New Positions

By Andy Meek

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Paul Mattila

The day after last week’s Shelby County general election, Paul Mattila walked into a room in the Shelby County Administration Building where employees of the Shelby County Trustee’s office had gathered in his honor.

Mattila, appointed in February by the Shelby County Board of Commissioners as acting county trustee, won the election Thursday night to fill the remaining years of the unfinished term of his former boss, Bob Patterson, who died in January of a heart attack. At the gathering for Mattila on Friday morning, attendees enjoyed coffee, donuts and juice.

When the newly minted trustee walked into the room, a banner that read “Congratulations Paul” caught his eye.

“I walked in, looked up at it and said, ‘You’ve got the wrong name on the sign,’” said Mattila, who attributed his win to the support he’s garnered from elected officials and from the rank-and-file employees he credits with boosting his candidacy. “The sign shouldn’t read ‘Congratulations Paul.’ It should read ‘Congratulations Y’all.’”

Not long after the new county trustee was breaking bread with his colleagues following his electoral win, the county’s new assessor of property was fresh off her own election night victory. And like Mattila, Cheyenne Johnson – who will succeed Rita Clark as Shelby County assessor of property – spent much of the day Friday fielding a barrage of phone calls.

Johnson most recently has worked as Clark’s chief administrative officer. As Johnson spoke with The Daily News and gave a brief outline of her plans, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., called to congratulate her.

“The phone’s just been ringing all day,” Johnson said, before a familiar series of beeps interrupted her. “There it goes again.”

Economic impact

Much of the attention, the fireworks and the political spectacle last week was attached to a pair of congressional races, the outcomes of which were decided Thursday along with a myriad of countywide campaigns as well as the fates of two proposed county charter amendments. But it is the winners of the trustee and property assessor races who will quickly emerge as dominant forces in the county’s economic structure.

That’s because anyone who owns a business, pays taxes, or buys and sells property will repeatedly come into contact with – and often feel the influence of – the two people who hold those countywide offices.

The importance of both officeholders cannot be overstated, nor is it easy to say that one is more important than the other. The county trustee, whose office handles a cash flow of several billion dollars each year, has to be personally bonded since even a small budgeting mistake can leave the county on the hook for millions of dollars.

The county assessor of property puts a price tag on every piece of land in Shelby County, which determines how much that property’s owner pays each year in taxes to local government. On top of that, next year the county is scheduled to undergo a reappraisal program, which occurs every four years.

The reappraisal is comprised of a variety of milestones that include putting the correct value on a piece of property, mailing out the new figures and dealing with property owners who appeal their values. For that reason, Johnson throughout the campaign made frequent references to her experience and her ability to keep the trains running on time, as it were.

“I am just blessed and I have so much gratitude to the citizens of Shelby County for seeing that 20 years of experience does count and will make a difference in the future of the assessor’s office,” Johnson said. “I feel like with the administration of Rita Clark, the people have been pleased with the service that has been rendered during that time for 12 years.

“They want to see that service continue, and that’s the thing I intend to do.”

Looking ahead

Getting ready for the reappraisal is one of the new assessor’s most pressing short-term objectives.

“The next thing is for me to go back in and get an update on the reappraisal plan and the activities that already have taken place,” Johnson said. “The areas that we really have to tune in to now will be your sales verification for residential purposes and the cap rate study that’s done for commercial properties in order to determine a value.

“We’ve contracted out the study for the last three reappraisals, and it really makes it very neutral. It’s an outside person who comes in and gives a perspective looking at the sales and expenses and the rents that they collect. That way nobody can say we lean one way towards one group of property owners versus another.”

For Mattila, meanwhile, the first order of business is to continue streamlining his office, which handles millions of dollars in tax receipts each year.

He’s been pushing in that direction for the past few months already. He said he reads his election win as a stamp of approval on his leadership thus far.

“It means the voters in Shelby County heard our message,” he said. “We’ve made some changes. We’ve cut some expenses. We’re streamlining the operation. We’re realigning manpower to make it even better. It’s the most important office in county government, because all the money comes through here. Everything comes through this office.”

PROPERTY SALES 92 480 7,835
MORTGAGES 115 551 8,785
BUILDING PERMITS 325 1,167 17,068
BANKRUPTCIES 39 311 5,159