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.