Petersburg mayor goes after delinquent taxpayers

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Petersburg mayor made it pretty clear in May’s Monday night meeting of the board of mayor and aldermen that property owners behind on their taxes would be put on notice -- pay your Petersburg property taxes or lose your stuff.

“These individuals are paying their county taxes, but they haven’t paid their (Petersburg) property taxes in three or four years,” Mayor James Owen said in a recent Elk Valley Times article. “We have sent them letters, but they must feel like they do not have to pay.”

As a last option, the mayor is in the process of having distress warrants issued for those individuals who are delinquent taxpayers, locally. Going back in Tennessee legal history, a distress warrant authorized members of law enforcement, notably the Petersburg Police Department in this situation, to seize the personal property of the taxpayer in question to settle the debt. Personal property that could be taken in a seizure included items such as real estate, vehicles, livestock, pets and other personal items.

“I think we should make an example out of them,” Petersburg Alderwoman Barbara Woodward also said in a recent Elk Valley Times article. “We’ve all got to pay our taxes.”

Tennessee state law cites that a letter of notice must be mailed, or otherwise delivered to the last known address for delinquent taxpayers 10 days before the warrants are executed.

Petersburg tax collector Carla Stovall reported that nine people were delinquent on their Petersburg Town property taxes on the Lincoln County side, and that eight offenders had Petersburg property on the Marshall County side. Some taxes are owed Petersburg going back to 2013.

The slant of the article published in the Elk Valley Times conjured up scenes of seized pets and livestock to settle delinquent taxpayer debts, and brought a swell of public response.

One of the offending delinquent Petersburg taxpayers told the Tribune, “They are (Board of Mayor and Aldermen) threatening to seize dogs and cats and livestock in lieu of delinquent taxes,” Corey Smith said. Smith, who grew up on Old Delina Road in Marshall County, now lives on the Lincoln County side of Petersburg close enough to “throw a rock” back across the line into Marshall from his property. Taking a rather defiant stance, “I feel pretty safe,” Smith said, “I’ve got a horse and a jack ass out there, but I don’t think they want any more jack asses in town hall.”

When asked about seizing animals in response to delinquent property taxes, “We ain’t taking nobody’s horses or dogs,” Stovall said. “That’s so silly it’s embarrassing. And, I certainly don’t want his (Smith’s) horse or dogs.”

Mayor Owen explained the groundswell of response to the previously cited newspaper article was taken out of context. He explained to those in attendance as to why delinquent property taxes had not been paid and what was going to be done about it. He also mentioned the outdated mode of seizing personal property, such as livestock, as an antiquated example of what was done in the past to settle tax debts. “A lot of it was misstated in the newspaper article,” Owen said. “It used to be the law on the books, but now we have to get a lawyer, and he sends a letter and lets them know they are delinquent. Then they are carried through the court system to sell their property on the county court house steps. We are not going to come and get anyone’s animals. That’s the way it used to be.”

A simple statement taken the wrong way has led to quite a bit of drama for the mayor. Over the Memorial Day weekend, the mayor reported that “20 people knocked on my door to complain,” Owen said. One Petersburg resident even went to far as to drive into the mayor’s yard, interrupting a family Memorial Day cookout to confront the mayor and voice their worries about having their pet fish and aquarium seized if they didn’t pay their property taxes. He simply asked them, “Did you pay your taxes?” and their response was “yes.” Owen reassured them that they had nothing to worry about.

An interesting note in this small-town saga, Corey Smith is a past Petersburg Alderman. “He was on the board and was on the planning commission at one time,” Owen said. “He was the best on the planning commission that there ever was.”