Democratic and Republican candidate for Athens County auditor participate in voter forum

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) — The candidates for Athens County auditor appeared at a forum Tuesday night and for the most part articulated similar goals when it comes to running the office, but did seek to differentiate themselves on a few issues.

A person votes off in the distance. They are in a school gym. A box in the foreground has an American flag on it and the word Vote underneath it.
[Daniel Konik | Statehouse News Bureau]
Democratic candidate Ric Wasserman, who has been the county’s treasurer for the past four years, said one of the biggest challenges facing local senior citizens is the surge in home prices and the rising property taxes that come with it.

Wasserman said if elected auditor he would push to make the state’s homestead exemption available to all seniors regardless of income. The exemption lowers property taxes by reducing the market valuation of homes. But it is only available to seniors with incomes below a certain threshold — for 2021, it was $34,200.

“There’s no reason why people over 65 need to worry about being thrown out of their home because they can’t afford their property taxes,” Wasserman said.

Republican candidate Jill Thompson, who has held the auditor’s job for more than two decades, said there are already multiple bills before the state Legislature to amend the homestead exemption and that Wasserman need not wait to become auditor to lobby for them. 

“I think they’re all very valid and worthwhile,” Thompson said of the bills, although she did not say whether she favored eliminating the income threshold. She said more needs to be done to make seniors aware of the exemption.

The auditor’s office performs a variety of duties, from determining property values and taxes to administering dog licenses. The auditor is also responsible for making sure the county’s finances are in order.

Wasserman accused Thompson’s office of being overzealous when it comes to how local governments are treated when they carry over certain funds from one year to the next. Township or village leaders might do this to help fund a project coming down the road, he said. When this happens, he said, the auditor sends a letter asking them to explain what they’re doing.

“Essentially they’re forced to bow down and say mother may I — if they’re being good stewards of their money,” Wasserman said.

It’s not the role of the auditor to second-guess other levels of government, he said, but instead to make sure proper reporting is done.

Thompson said that financial accountability is part of the job. “When a township or village is carrying over more money than they need to spend we do ask them why,” she said. Ohio law requires that local governments demonstrate the need for holding onto unspent funds collected through tax levies, she said.

“The financial records of the townships and the villages and the cities matter because them being accountable is accountability to you,” Thompson said, referring to the general public. “If we don’t question and we don’t hold other governments, other local governments, accountable, I’m not sure who would.”

One of the biggest disagreements between the two candidates was over the Athens County Land Bank. This is a nonprofit organization that takes properties the county has foreclosed on and tries to sell them or find some other way to put them back into use.

The properties the Land Bank receives have been foreclosed on because they are abandoned and the owner has not been paying property taxes. The properties are often rundown and in some cases a community eyesore.

The foreclosures in these cases are not done through the courts but through the county Board of Revision. And under this process, the owner is not compensated for the value of the property and the back taxes are waived.

Wasserman said that through the Land Bank more than 100 properties have been brought back into productive use.

“The Land Bank is a tremendous credit to the county and has spurred revitalization in parts of the county where we hadn’t seen a new house built in sometimes 10 or 20 years,” he said.

But Thompson is not a fan, Wasserman said. “The auditor’s office has been nothing but an obstacle to the Land Bank since its creation,” he said.

Thompson said her concerns have to do in part with the way the process is structured. The treasurer sits on both the Board of Revision and the Land Bank, which she believes raises concerns about accountability.

The fact that back taxes are not collected is another issue for Thompson. She said hundreds of thousands of dollars in potential tax revenue have been written off through this process. Thompson also argues the process, because it happens outside the courts, can end up stacked against property owners.

“I think it’s really important that when we take people’s property that we do it right, that we follow the law and that we don’t violate their constitutional rights,” she said.

Wasserman said state law requires that he sit on both the Board of Revision and Land Bank board. He said that in the case of properties that end up with the Land Bank, the property owners have either died or long since left the area, leaving the property abandoned and tax delinquent.

“Those taxes were never going to get paid,” he said.

The candidate forum was hosted by the Athens County League of Women Voters. The next forum, which will feature candidates for Athens County commissioner, is scheduled for Oct. 6 at 7 p.m. at the Athens Community Center.