A Conversation with County Auditor, Dusty Rhodes, on Facebook (Part 1 of 2)

On December 10, I published a wtf? post concerning the property tax status of the new construction at 2 Grandin Riverview owned by Robert H. Castellini.  While I have been talking about specific properties since August 21, it was only when I recently focused on valuations on homes owned by John F. Barrett and Mr. Castellini that all hell broke loose.

Since it has been suggested that I am trying to “spin everything” to conform to my own narrative, I will simply transcribe the conversation exactly as it occured and let readers make their own judgements.

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Dusty Rhodes:  Well, you’ve got me.  As a life-long Yankees fan and Democrat, I wanted to do something nice for a big Republican (who has often contributed big bucks to my political opponents) and National League team owner.  And I don’t hesitate to show my decision on our public website so everyone can see evidence of my kindness.  Come on, Kathy, get a grip.

Dusty Rhodes:  Seriously, there is nothing “mysterious” or “un-explainable” (sic) about this property.  Good idea to ask questions and get the facts before rushing to print.

Kathy Holwadel:  I have asked, many, many times.  You said you didn’t want to address it [valuation issues] before the election.  These examples are the tip of the iceberg.  I wish it was hard to find them.  The honest truth is that it’s hard not to find them if you know where to look.  It’s not rocket science.

Karen Maslowski:  Dusty, here’s your chance, then.  How did this happen?  Why did this happen?  Why did this property not require taxes being paid?

John Flaherty:  As a reporter with the Cincinnati Enquirer, I am less interested in your being a Yankee fan (Go Sox!) and more interested in asking if you think this is equitable?  Is the tax burden being fairly carried by all?

Dusty Rhodes:  Absolutely wrong, Kathy.  This is not an abatement.  It is new construction.  The old building was demolished in 2011.  At the end of 2012 the structure was less than 50% complete which is our threshhold before assigning value.  The structure had no exterior cover, no interior finishing, and no shingles.  So for the tax lien date of 1/1/2013 there was not enough work completed to charge anything.  At the end of 2013, we again viewed the property and noted that the porperty was not complete and that no Certificate of Occupancy had been issued.  We did however value it as being 75% complete for the tax lien date of 1/1/2014.  This value will be on the upcoming tax bill and will appear on our website in mid-December.  For residential properties we consistantly value new structures at 50% or 75% or 100% complete only.  FYI this is tax year 2013 – always a year behind the real year by state law.

Dusty Rhodes:  John, I didn’t realize Enquirer reporters were researching stories on Facebook.  See above response to the writer.  “Equitable” has nothing to do with this.  The tax burden is not “being carried fairly by all” – not because of no value on partial construction (which conforms to state law and the Tax Commissioner instructions) but because of a multitude of tax abatements being handed out by local communities, mostly by the City of Cincinnati.  Don’t confuse new construction with abatements as the writer did.

Dusty Rhodes:  Added thought.  It may not appear to be “rocket science” but it still is a good idea to get the facts before posting an inflammatory, accusatory blog.

John Flaherty (reporter): I am asking questions, Mr. Rhodes, and yes, Facebook is a way I communicate with many people.  I guess that would be kind of like the County Auditor, right?

Dusty Rhodes:  No.  Not when answering reporters’ questions generally.

John Flaherty (reporter) Great, Mr. Rhodes.  Let’s meet for an interview.  When is good for you?

Kathy Holwadel:  I could always be wrong about my interpretation of any single parcel.  It’s the weight of the pattern that’s so damning.

Dusty Rhodes:  I was talking about abatements when I said we were reviewing them and wouldn’t complete that until after the election.  You are definitely wrong about your “interpretation” of what is occuring with this parcel and I fail to see what kind of “pattern” you suggest is so damning.  We are following the law and also posting everything on line.  It is deceptive and wrong to allege there is some kind of grand conspiracy afoot everytime you discover something you don’t understand.

Bob Woodiwiss (professional writer):  May I suggest a slogan for your next election? “Rhodes for Auditor: Defensive, Sarcastic, Dismissive”

Dusty Rhodes:  No thanks, Bob Woodiwiss.  My slogan is “common sense” which covers answering bogus charges in kind with facts.  I never dismiss legitimate queries.

(participants start to ask for clarification on other posts I’ve written about)

Dusty Rhodes:  (next day) OK, guys and gals, from now on if you have questions about individual property valuation you can direct then to me at the County Auditor’s office.  For a bunch of good reasons, I am no longer going to respond on social media to Facebook posts about individual property values. I agree that Kathy can be a valuable observer and welcome that.  However she diminishes her credibility when she is clearly in error in her conclusions based on incomplete information.  Something about the “little boy who cried wolf” comes to mind.

Blogger’s Conclusions:

I could have done a better job on this property.  And I will – the next time I look at another new construction.  One of my inside sources gave me the link to where I can get building permits:  http://cagis.hamilton-co.org/opal/ezTrakSearch. aspx?entcode=cagis.  And the comments section of this post are full of interesting facts and considerations, including this one from somebody (an architect, perhaps?) who obviously knows what they’re talking about:

“The home was under construction for a long time.  The original designs were taken and brought to a builder who began construction and then went under during the recession.  The house sat in an unfinished state for a long time until the owners were able to work with an actual architect & not a builder to redesign and fix all the problems that arose by hiring an unqualified builder.  Construction was finished a little over a year ago.”

My anonymous developer source told me that the builder that was used to finish the property, John Hueber Homes, has a spotless reputation and confirms this information.

Before I started this blog, I tried everything I could think of to get somebody to pay attention to the overall problems I saw in the public property tax records.  I sent a summary of findings and or talked to members of Council and their staffs, at least half a dozen journalists, Dusty’s political opponent, the treasurer of the Cincinnati Public Schools, a School Board member – the list goes on and on.  Everyone agreed that my research was interesting – but the subject was too big, too complicated to research in the real world of journalism where reporters are often writing 2 or 3 articles everyday and not enough constituents were complaining at City Hall for the politicians to care.  So I decided to do the best job I could and take it to the public in this format.  Even after I started I tried to get Dusty to talk to me about my concerns.  He was only interested in encouraging me to go after abatements handed out by Cincinnati.

Cincyopolis has exceeded my most optimistic expectations.  This is the public conversation I dreamed about – with incredibly intelligent readers who all have personal expertise and experience to inform our dialogue.  We are getting smarter.  We will be a more informed electorate and as an informed and connected electorate we will make better decisions about incentives for development and ensure a fair application of property tax law.  One of the things I am happiest to see is the number of posts popping up on other sites using screenshots of the Auditor’s records.  We’re new to this – but by correcting each other when we don’t get it right – we’re learning how to use valuable information in a critical and informed way.  Exactly the reason that information is made public in the first place.

When Dusty calls those of us in this discussion “conspiracy theorists” and makes intentionally deceptive statements like,  “Don’t confuse new construction with abatements as the writer did” when I never once used the word or implied any such thing, that’s frustrating. But the internet makes it impossible for government and powerful financial interests to control the exchange of information among citizens like they could when we were dependent on advertising-based newspapers.  Banging me over the head isn’t going to stop me.

I’m going to try to do a better job.  I’ll send Dusty an email before I feature specific properties and will include any comments he provides. And as a compulsive truth teller, you can count on me to tell you when I screw it up.  Perfection does not lie in never making mistakes, but in a  steadfast dedication to working towards truth.  This is our conversation and if Dusty wants to help us learn, his knowledge is welcome.  But when he tries to shut it down altogether by casting aspersions on my intelligence and intent, it feels an awful lot like fear and why should someone so important be afraid of a little blog like this one?

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