By Jeremy D. Wells
Carter County Times
Should Carter County be collecting more tax revenue than it currently is? According to some sources, the answer is yes.
On Friday (December 30) the Ashland Daily Independent reported on allegations of malfeasance in the office of Carter County Property Valuation Administrator (PVA) Leslie Kiser-Roseberry. Those allegations included claims that Kiser-Roseberry’s office undervalued property owned by her friends and family members in order to lower the property taxes they would be responsible for paying.
Kiser-Roseberry’s attorney Jeff Mando, however, disputed those claims. He said an independent third party assessed properties owned by Kiser-Roseberry and her son, and the figures provided by that third party were used to assess taxes on the properties.
A group of whistleblowers, including a person who claimed to be the source for the Ashland Daily article, spoke to the Carter County Times over the weekend to provide more context for those claims, however. They noted that properties owned by Kiser-Roseberry and her son, Benjamin Jackson, were assessed by an independent assessor, but only after concerns were raised in a recent audit. They showed the publicly available property cards for Kiser-Roseberry’s property and Jackson’s property, with the assessed value of those homes for tax purposes as documentation of the original assessed values.
Jackson’s home, for instance, was assessed at $37,500 through 2018, and at $45,000 from 2019 through 2022. The assessed value of that home after inspection by the independent third party, however, “apparently came back at $73,000 with the independent assessment,” one of the whistleblowers said.
They also noted that sale prices had been deleted from the property card by someone within the PVA office, with only the 1989 sale price of $24,200 listed on the chain of ownership. A 2002 change to the deed which removed one of the co-owners, and the price of the 2018 sale from Scott Roseberry to Benjamin Jackson are not listed in the chain of ownership section of the property card.
The property card for Kiser-Roseberry’s home shows it was assessed at $57,500 in 2020, and that the assessed value increased to $62,500 in 2021 and again to $70,000 in 2022. These increases were based on improvements to the property.
These increases would seem to refute claims in a complaint letter sent by the whistleblowers to the attorney general, the state ethics committee, and the Kentucky department of revenue that Kiser-Roseberry’s property assessments didn’t increase in pace with improvements to the home seen on the PVA’s personal social media profiles. However, the whistleblowers claim that even with these increases, the property was severely undervalued for tax purposes, with the independent assessor valuing the property at $184,000 – more than double the assessed value of the home by the PVA’s office prior to the independent assessment.
Mando said he couldn’t provide information about discrepancies between valuation before and after the assessment by the third-party without more information. Likewise, he said, he couldn’t comment on allegations of lower property values for friends.
“I don’t know, unless someone gives me a specific piece of property… if there were any (issues with friends),” Mando said.
Finding those properties can be difficult, however. The whistleblowers allege that Kiser-Roseberry’s office has deleted data and changed parcel IDs to make it more difficult to trace the history of a property. They said the office has also granted agricultural status to properties that aren’t used for agriculture, that they’ve extended homestead status to property owners who didn’t qualify for the tax break, and made other concessions for friends.
They also claimed that Jackson, who works in the PVA office, hasn’t done his job of properly surveying and updating improvements to properties for assessment purposes. One example of this was a series of properties owned by Tranquility Property Management. Initially indicated as one of the possible groups to benefit from Kiser-Roseberry’s friendship, after the properties were given a nil value for assessment purposed, the owners of the company – contacted after searching their annual report at the Secretary of State’s website – said they were not personally familiar with Kiser-Roseberry or Jackson.
They claimed they filed all proper permits, but did not contact the PVA office directly to report the improvements to the land because they didn’t believe they were required to. They said after they were alerted to the total taxes due on the property they had paid the balance.
The whistleblowers said while the PVA had zeroed out the value for the time before the buildings on the Tranquility property were completed, they should have been assessed at the value of the shell buildings standing at the time taxes were assessed.
They pointed to internal documentation that showed when Jackson reported fieldwork, he was posting it without photos of the property or any changes in the property.
“Some people question whether he even did the field work,” one of the whistleblowers said. Without the photos attached to the notes, they said, or a notation of any change in value, there is no way to determine if Jackson actually did the field surveys he claimed.
“If there is no photo,” one of the sources added, “then Leslie (Kiser-Roseberry) or the other people in the office cannot accurately assess the value of a property.”
Mando said despite these claims, there were no official complaints about Kiser-Roseberry’s work.
“The department of revenue looked at the properties, and the audit passes muster,” Mando said.
He noted that there are two audits done of the PVA office. The first, he said, was a financial audit of all transactions. That audit, he said, is conducted by the state auditor, and Kiser-Roseberry has passed all of those audits.
The second is a performance audit. That audit is conducted by the department of revenue. In those audits as well, Mando said, comments about his client’s job performance, “have been nothing but complimentary.”
The whistleblowers, however, said Mando was cherry-picking, noting that the 2021 audit, which was completed by someone who hadn’t worked in Carter County before, was critical – and possibly instrumental in the new assessments of Kiser-Roseberry’s and Jackson’s properties.
The Carter County Times has not seen the 2021 audit in question.
Mando, however, criticized the whistleblowers’ approach, saying that with the family owned properties the department of revenue, independent of any allegations, had looked at the assessments, made recommendations, and everything had been resolved.
He said he was not aware of any criminal allegations or pending law enforcement action, either locally or from the state.
“All we’re aware of is an allegation from an unnamed source,” Mando said.
Mando said complaints against Kiser-Roseberry might be politically motivated, but since she ran unopposed it was more likely they came from a disgruntled employee. He noted, however, that without knowing the identity of the accuser it was all pure conjecture.
He also noted that if anyone felt they had been treated unfairly by the PVA office in the valuation of their property, there was a process for appeal.
“There’s always some degree of subjectivity in the assessment of the value of a piece of property,” he said. “It’s not a black and white endeavor.”
While one person might look at a piece of property and offer $75,000 for it, Mando said, he might look at it and decide he would be willing to pay $89,000. The assessed value, he said, might be another number entirely.
One area where this could occur was in personal transactions. If a parent or grandparent sells a home to a child or grandchild, or a neighbor sells a property to a neighbor, those personal transactions are different than “at arm’s length” transactions. Those transactions assume the buyer and seller are working “at arm’s length” with each wanting the best deal for themselves – the buyer a lower price and the seller a higher price – rather than coming to an agreement with someone they have an existing relationship with. This process is supposed to guarantee a fair valuation. If it didn’t, he said, then individuals could initiate an appeal.
“Citizens can take comfort in knowing there is a process of appeals if they feel a property has not been properly assessed,” Mando said.
But the whistleblowers explained that even in personal sales between family, where you couldn’t base the fair market value on the number reached in an arm’s length sale, that assessors should use comparable properties to determine a fair value for taxation purposed. But because it’s more difficult for those types of sales to be quantified, they explained, it’s more likely that auditor’s will overlook them. For this reason, they said, the office appeared to sometimes change the classifications of sales to reduce the potential for scrutiny, as they did when assessing a property as an agricultural property rather than a residential or commercial property.
While Mando was critical of the use of an anonymous source, maintaining the anonymity of a source is a time honored journalistic tradition, as long as the reporter has verified the identity of the source and the information they are providing.
The Carter County Times was contacted via web form with similar allegations during the election. With no follow-up contact information, however, we were unable to verify the information or the identity of the source at that time – something we would need to do before we proceeded with reporting even if we promised anonymity. While Kiser-Roseberry ran for office unopposed, the complaint against the PVA was one of several anonymous complaints against officer holders and those running for office received during the lead up to the election. Most of those allegations proved baseless on further examination or did not include sufficient information to investigate. We have since verified the identity of the whistleblowers to our satisfaction. We’ve also been shown a wide range of publicly available documentation that deserves further scrutiny.
Mando was not available for a second follow-up conversation prior to press time.
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