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Halbert claims ‘go-high’ stance in dispute with assessor’s office

Contentions between the Shelby County Clerk’s Office and the Shelby County Assessor’s Office came to a head as accusations and threats of ouster flew this week.

While Shelby County Clerk Wanda Halbert prepared for the county’s swearing-in ceremony Wednesday (Aug. 31) afternoon, she called a recent allegation that she is costing the county about $4 million annually “baseless and without merit.”

“I’m taking a page from Michelle Obama’s playbook,” Halbert said. “When they go low, we go high. I have ordered an independent audit of my office and the 77 sources of income we take in. My office is run with integrity and decorum. This audit will answer all allegations.”

Javier Bailey

Javier “Jay” Bailey, chief administrative officer for the Assessor’s Office, said Halbert’s decision to cut off access to data is costing Shelby County Government $3 million to $4 million in lost revenue annually.

“Our county clerk has refused to allow access to records needed in the Assessor’s Office to tax new businesses,” Bailey said Wednesday. “I reached out to Halbert’s chief administrative officer Bill Cash in an Aug. 26 email to see if some agreeable resolution might be possible.”

Halbert took offense to the email, which notably excluded her.

“I never received that email,” said Halbert. “It was addressed to my CAO, but not to me? Shelby County Tax Assessor Melvin Burgess was copied on the email, but I was left out of the loop. I feel there is something disingenuous about that.”

Bailey, who is an attorney, said he will do everything in his power to de-escalate tensions and broker an amicable resolution.

“Today is a busy one for elected officials being sworn in,” said Bailey. “But next week, maybe Tuesday or Wednesday, I plan to reach out to Ms. Halbert and get Assessor Burgess to sit down and talk with her. Hopefully, we can work out all points of contention amiably. I don’t want to pursue more aggressive measures.”

An old dispute was raised in Bailey’s email, charging Halbert with cutting access to a database which the assessor’s office has used to identify new businesses.

“In 2019, just months after I was elected, I discovered that there was free and open access to data which should have been kept private,” said Halbert. “Social Security numbers and other personal information was exposed. So, I cut off access. The assessor has access to needed data, including business names, owners, and addresses.”

Although excluded from the late Friday email, sent at 10:42 p.m., Halbert replied to Bailey, defending her actions as necessary to protect sensitive, “restricted data.” 

Halbert said she cut access to the restricted information after consulting with the County Attorney’s Office. Halbert said the assessor’s office was accessing highly sensitive information from a number of county offices, including the District Attorney General’s Office.

Halbert also referenced in her reply the “New Business List” that is available on the County Clerk’s website. Each entry lists the business name, product type, address, owner, and date the license was issued.

But more detail is needed, according to the Assessor’s Office, including business license account numbers and contact information, such as telephone numbers and email addresses, to efficiently identify new businesses and add them to the tax rolls.

Tennessee Comptroller Jason Mumpower encouraged local authorities to oust Halbert in a statement released on Friday. Mumpower was responding to a request from the Shelby County Commission to temporarily seize control of the clerk’s license plate distribution operations.

The request was made after a months-long backlog in the issuance of auto license plates.

Halbert closed her office last week to resolve the backlog but caused a firestorm of controversy for vacationing in Jamaica during the closure. 

Mumpower blasted Halbert for vacationing while her employees worked to catch up. Bailey’s email was sent three hours later.

Shelby County Clerk Wanda Halbert on Monday during a press conference in response to concerns and criticism about her handling of the office. (Screen capture)

Halbert defended her vacation during the office shutdown in an Aug. 29 news conference.

Halbert said she “will not tolerate anyone suggesting that my personal business, my personal life, should be played out before the public.”

Halbert reminded media that she is “not an employee with a job who has to ask a boss for approval to be out of the office.”

The Aug. 22-26 closure of the county clerk’s office cleared up two-thirds of the backlog, Halbert said.

Halbert is scheduled to close the offices again Sept. 19-23.

 

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