Primary 2020: Property Assessor

Primary 2020: Property Assessor

With a countywide reappraisal on the horizon, the use of technology is emerging as an issue in the Knox County property assessor’s race.

by scott barker • February 3, 2020
Incumbent Knox County Property Assessor John Whitehead (left) and challenger Tina Marshall.

In Tennessee, a county’s property assessor is somewhat like an athlete in an obscure (to Americans) Olympic sport. The public pays attention once every four years — the Olympiad for the athletes and the legally required reassessment for property assessors.

Incumbent John Whitehead and challenger Tina Marshall disagree on the usefulness of iPads in the field.

Of course, property assessors, like Olympic athletes, still must perform during the other three years, but they are judged by the reassessment, which helps determine how much property owners will pay in property taxes. 

As in sports, property owners can cheer for different outcomes. Some hope their property is appraised at a higher amount, which means they are building wealth through their real estate investments; others want to keep their appraisals low, so they pay less in property taxes.

The county and city property tax rates are adjusted based on appraisals the property assessor’s office calculates during the assessment. Individual property owners might end up paying more or less in taxes as a result, but city and county governments cannot see an increase in the overall amount of revenue. 

The next reappraisal in Knox County will be held in 2022, and the winner of this year’s property assessor race will oversee the process.

Incumbent John Whitehead, who has been Knox County’s property assessor 12 of the past 20 years, is running for re-election against Tina Marshall, a former assessor’s office appraiser and currently a government travel coordinator for a contractor in Oak Ridge. Both are Republicans and no Democrats are running, meaning that the winner of the March 3 GOP primary will take the gold.

The Challenger

Marshall was born in an Army hospital in Germany and grew up in Knox County, graduating from Farragut High School in 1983. She worked in construction for 25 years, coordinating land and business purchases for a company she ran with her ex-husband until the Great Recession hit.

She worked in the assessor’s office for two years under Whitehead and former Property Assessor Phil Ballard. Marshall said the job was a natural fit, given her professional background, and working a reappraisal taught her about the office. “We had to look at every parcel, and you have to get it right,” she said during an interview over coffee at K-Brew in West Knoxville.

Getting it right involves preparation, Marshall said. She promised to provide leadership that will instill teamwork and accountability throughout the office.

“You can’t look at all these parcels in one year,” Marshall said. “My job is to get that office in order for the reappraisal. It’s going to hit you like that, and you’ve got to be prepared.” 

To Marshall, preparation means upgrading technology and increasing training, especially cross-training so employees can take on multiple roles as needed. Marshall is particularly concerned that the office isn’t using state-provided iPads in the field as part of the appraisal process. 

“We had to do it all by hand,” she said of her time in the assessor’s office. “This is 2020; it’s not 1964.”

Using iPads to directly transfer data to the office’s computer system rather than drawing floor plans and filling out forms by hand would increase efficiency and accuracy in measuring square footage, Marshall contends, a key to accurately appraising the value of a property.

Fairness to property owners is needed to reduce the number of valuation appeals and coming to a equitable outcome to the appeals that are made, according to Marshall. She said the “good ol’ boy” approach won’t work anymore.

“Your job is to keep it fair,” she said. “I’m very conservative with money and want to make sure everybody has a fair tax rate.”

The Incumbent

Whitehead served as property assessor from 2000-2008, but couldn’t run for re-election then because of term limits. He regained the seat four years ago when Ballard, his successor, couldn’t run for the same reason.

Except for the eight years of Ballard’s tenure, Whitehead has worked in the assessor’s office since 1972. He rose to chief deputy in 1983, his position when first elected in 2000. As might be expected, Whitehead touts his experience as a reason he should be re-elected to another term. “I love the job,” he said. “It’s the only job I’ve ever had.”

In an interview at his office in the City County Building, Whitehead predicted that property owners will see a jump in their property values when the 2022 appraisal is complete. “We’ve had a good economy and property values have gone up,” he said.

Whitehead expects appeals to come in at about the same rate as the last appraisal — about 8.5 percent. Big box stores almost always appeal, he noted, seeking to be appraised as though their buildings are vacant.

Whitehead said technology has always been an issue in the office. The office needs a “two-in-one” system that can process both yearly and four-year appraisals. The office is purchasing a new system from Tyler Technologies that will cost $1.8 million in capital and implementation costs (annual support figures aren’t yet available).

“We’re in the process of buying a state-of-the-art system, a cloud-based system,” Whitehead said. “It’s supposed to solve a lot of problems, but it will probably cause some, too.”

Whitehead hopes to have the new system online by September 2021. Staff training would begin before then. Though he’s looking forward to using the new system, Whitehead is not a fan of the office’s iPads.

“People can draw with a pencil faster than they can on a tablet,” he explained. “Sometimes the old stuff works better than the new stuff.”

Whitehead said accurate appraisals, using market values when properties are sold between assessments, are vital to the job. Equalization, he contends, is best achieved on the front end. “That’s just experience,” he said.

Early voting runs Feb. 12-25 at 10 locations throughout Knox County. Primary Election Day is March 3.