Appraisals under fire

The Valero refinery in Texas City won their appraisal lawsuit earlier this year. 

Photo by Jennifer Reynolds

TEXAS CITY — Who is to blame for a late installment payment to Valero as part of its property tax refund after a court ruled that the refining company overpaid on its 2011 taxes on its Texas City refinery?

Last week, County Tax Assessor/Collector Cheryl Johnson blamed county commissioners — County Judge Mark Henry in particular — for the missed $1.125 million payment, and said, as a result, the county would have to pay $135,000 in penalties for being late.

On Wednesday, a day after commissioners approved the payment, two commissioners fired back, pointing the finger at Johnson, saying she had the responsibility to get the money to Valero. Commissioners Ryan Dennard and Ken Clark disputed Johnson’s claims that the late payment would cost the county an extra $135,000.

Earlier in the day, Henry, too, accused Johnson of using the issue to “play primary politics.”

In February, the oil company filed a lawsuit and successfully argued that appraisers had in 2011 overvalued its Texas City refinery. A district court ruled that the city, school district, county and College of the Mainland would have to repay Valero about $4.8 million.

A jury in Judge Lonnie Cox’s 56th District Court lowered Valero’s assessed value by $189.4 million for the 2011 tax year — from $526.8 million to $333.4 million — but because the company had already paid its property taxes, the county and other local governments were required to cough up a refund.

“Commissioners Court ultimately determined that the penalties alleged by Mrs. Johnson were false, based on the pending appeal of the Valero lawsuit,” Dennard and Clark said in a statement.

“Because the appeal is not finally determined, I don’t see how the time period for the refund deadline has even begun to run,” Dennard said.

The commissioners said Bob Boemer, director of the county’s legal department, agreed and argued the county had until at least 60 days following the conclusion of the appeal to make the refund payment.

Johnson publicly called out Henry and argued with the county’s legal director during Tuesday’s commissioners court meeting when the payment — minus any penalty — was approved.

The commissioners also noted that they thought it was Johnson who dropped the ball and called the vocal county tax assessor on the carpet.

“Mrs. Johnson is clearly abdicating her responsibilities in Galveston County,” Clark said, citing provisions in the state’s tax code that give Johnson the authority, without commissioners’ approval, to make the payment.

“She should know her statutory duties, especially since she has served in this capacity for nearly 10 years and regularly makes such refunds.”

Johnson maintains that in cases as big as the Valero lawsuit, the commissioners handle the refund. She also sticks by her argument that penalties are owed.

“(They are) entitled to (their) opinion, and I am entitled to mine,” Johnson said. “Mine, however, was the result of a (one to two) hour meeting with experienced property tax attorneys. (Henry’s) is from his hired department head.”

Henry chalks Johnson’s accusations up to a political ploy. While both are Republicans, Johnson is backing Michelle Hatmaker, who is challenging Henry in the 2014 Republican primary for county judge.

Johnson, who on Tuesday called Henry’s management of the county government “inept,” said her comments are based on protecting tax dollars — not politics.

Valero officials declined to comment on the issue, but The Daily News confirmed that the company’s tax attorneys plan to make the argument Valero is owed about $135,000 extra because of the tardy payment.

Contact Mainland Editor T.J. Aulds at 409-683-5334 or tjaulds@galvnews.com.

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(1) comment

Miss Priss

I heard this exchange on the guidry news a few days ago. And it seemed to me that Johnson was trying to confront this issue so it gets cleared up for future scenarios.

While you didn't hear a peep from Mark Henry, Ryan Dennard was there to make sure that Johnson was doing her job. He seemed more concerned with the fact that she talked to the paper since he brought it up 5-6 times to try and reinterate his point which I don't believe he did a very good job of .... instead he sounded like he just graduated from law school and wanted to try and impress the peanut gallery with his newly acquired knowledge. Ken Clark demonstrated that he's been in office for over 12 years and still doesn't know how the county is supposed to run.

I applaud Cheryl Johnson for standing her ground - she definitely had to in this case. and oh yes, Stephen Holmes was the only commissioner that actually got to the heart of the matter - how is it going to be solved which is what Johnson was trying to get to before Dennard tried to start running interference and displacing the blame back to Johnson.

You never heard of issues like this when Yarbrough and Ron Shelby were in charge of this stuff.

This is the first I've heard Johnson backing Hatmaker. I kind of wish Cheryl Johnson would run - but she likes what she does and is excellent at it.

A little tip to Dennard: I bet that you pay for what you did to Cheryl Johnson down the road. Dennard must of forgotten that Johnson is the highest vote getter on the Republican ticket. I think that it is remarkable that she beats all county wide races including county judge.

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