Tax Assessor defends $20K pay raise

Published 8:41 am Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Panola Tax Assessor/Collector Odell Draper last week defended his decision to give $90,000 in raises to his office staff, including a $20,000 pay hike for himself.

At a political rally in Sardis on Thursday, Oct. 12, Draper said the pay increase came from a pool of money collected from the City of Batesville, and the Towns of Sardis, Pope, Courtland, Como, Crenshaw and Crowder, and required no millage increase in the county budget.

“It’s true that there is a $90,000 raise, but I gave $70,000 to my employees and kept $20,000 for myself,” he said. “The office employees will be getting the most money.”

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The Tax Assessor/Collector’s office employs 13 people, and each received a $4,000 raise. Those jobs are hourly, and based on experience and years, with a range of compensation (before increase) of $35,000 to $42,000.

Draper said the increases, amounting to 10 to 15 percent raises, were earned by his office and the staff should have been receiving the extra money sooner than now. The $90,000 that will fund the raises came from a pool of money – about $270,000 – that accumulated from administrative fees charged by the Tax Assessor/Collector to Batesville and the other towns in the county for assessing and collecting the ad valorem taxes on property in their incorporated limits.

Former Assessor/Collector David Garner would use the money to raise salaries in his office by $1 or $2 dollars an hour in years that supervisors gave no across-the-board raises to county employees. The pool was also used to upgrade office equipment and pay from some training and continuing education courses.

Draper told The Panolian he was unaware of the pool of money until he attended a state conference last year and other elected officials from around the state were discussing how they disbursed their county’s collections generated from contracts with municipalities.

“This is approved by the state legislature, and it does not cost the property owners in the county any extra money,” Draper said. As for the timing of the raises a month before a general election, especially the personal bump of $20,000, he said the supervisors were made aware of the request in July and had only recently given their approval.

Board of Supervisors President Cole Flint disagreed, pointing out that the supervisors have no control over the fees collected by Draper’s office, only the funding of his office as a whole.

“What he collects is his to decide how to appropriate,” Flint said. “I don’t disagree with a bonus or small increase to help his office staff, but I can think of a lot more needs in this county that $90,000 would make a difference.”

Another concern, Flint said, would be when the pool is exhausted of money, or if a dire emergency arises in the office, and there are no more funds.

“Then we would be in a predicament, and would either have to cut some people’s salaries or raise taxes on the whole county to pay for the tax assessor’s raise. That’s my biggest concern,” he said.

Draper, and all tax assessors in the state, received a $5,000 pay raise in January by mandate from the State Legislature, and will receive another $5,000 raise on Jan. 1, 2024. In Panola, the assessor is also the collector and that designation pays another $5,000 (by state law) annually.

Additionally, because Panola County has two judicial districts and courthouses, Draper is afforded another $7,000 to maintain dual offices, bringing his total yearly compensation to $70,800 before the $20,000 raise.

Chancery Clerk Katie Ragon, who is responsible for county payroll, said the final pay increase amounts were worked out with Draper’s office after considering the county’s expense in paying withholdings and retirement. The total costs of the raises, including those added line items, came to $90,000.

The original proposal was for $5,000 for each of the 13 employees and $27,000 for Draper, but was amended when the auxiliary costs went above the agreed upon cap of $90,000. That portion pulled out for the current raises will need to be replenished by future fees to maintain the surplus for the county.

Supervisor Chad Weaver said he has mixed feelings about the increase.

“I’m always glad to see county employees get an increase because a lot of county employees really work hard and everybody is just trying to support their families in this economy,” he said. “On the other hand, maybe some of that money could have been used in other areas, but that’s Mr. Draper’s office and he can apparently do what he wants with it.”

Supervisor Earl Burnett said if the money is indeed in the county coffers and will not cost taxpayers additional funds, he approves of the raises.

“Sometimes things are just common sense,” he said. “No matter if it’s on the Republican of Democratic side. Those girls need a raise, they deserve a raise. We are ten years behind on raises anyway I think personally.”