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Crotts' residency questioned again

COVINGTON - Two years after Mike Crotts was disqualified from running for state Senate District 17, questions have resurfaced concerning whether he lives in the district as he makes another bid for the seat.

In 2006, a state administrative law judge ruled Crotts was not qualified to run in the Republican primary because he maintained a permanent residence in Henry County, about a mile outside the district line.

When Crotts announced his candidacy earlier this year, he said he had purchased a house in Newton County, had filed a homestead exemption, was living there full-time and intended to sell the Henry County home.

But neighbors in Glynnshire subdivision off Brown Bridge Road said they've rarely seen Crotts since he bought the house in October, his water bills indicate a very minimum water usage and questions have arisen about his homestead exemption status.

Newton and Henry county tax records show that Crotts has had an active homestead exemption in both counties. By law, a property owner can claim only one homestead exemption in Georgia.

Candidates for public office must live in the district in which they qualify for at least a year prior to the election date. The Georgia Code states that the property for which an exemption is filed is considered the primary residence and "the homestead exemption must be actually occupied as the permanent residence and place of abode by the applicant awarded the exemption."

When contacted by the Citizen, Crotts adamantly denied having a homestead exemption in Henry County. But the exemption was verified by Interim Chief Appraiser Kenneth Voss, an employee in the tax assessor's office, and a check of property records on the assessor's Web site. Crotts also said his change of residency was reported to Henry County Tax Commissioner Andy Pipken.

Pipken said records show that Crotts does have an active homestead exemption, but not because he filed for one - the exemption was granted due to a staff error, he said.

In testimony at the 2006 residency challenge hearing, Crotts testified that he had a casual conversation with Pipken in which he mentioned he wanted to file for homestead exemption, but never completed the application. Somehow, however, the tax records reflected that he had an active exemption.

Following the hearing, Pipken said he removed the erroneous exemption from Crotts' record, but by that time, it had already rolled over to the 2007 tax year. Exemptions roll over from year to year automatically, he said.

A staff member failed to notice that the exemption was still in place, Pipken said, and Crotts did receive an exemption on his 2007 tax bill. The exemption also rolled over into the 2008 year. Pipken said he discovered the error after the Citizen contacted him Friday. Crotts will be billed for the homestead exemption he received in 2007, Pipken said.

Crotts said he didn't notice if he had a homestead exemption on his 2007 tax bill.

"I didn't really look at it to see. I was going on the premise that (Pipken) did what he said he was going to do in court," Crotts said.

Crotts called the Citizen on Tuesday and said he had documentation verifying the exemption was an error and has now been removed, as well as proof he has now paid back the 2007 exemption. Crotts offered to fax the documents, which had not been received as of press time.

Records obtained from the Newton and Henry county water and sewerage authorities through open records requests also raised questions about Crotts' residency.

The records show that water usage at Crotts' Newton home falls far below usage at the McDonough home.

Less than 1,000 gallons of water has been used at the Newton house each month since October 2007, with the exception of the month of February. Water bills have totaled $15 each month, except when late fees were tacked on for past due payments. According to the Newton County Water and Sewerage Authority, average usage for a family of two is 3,000 to 4,000 gallons per month.

In contrast, water usage at the McDonough home has ranged from 3,000 to 9,000 gallons per month since October.

When asked about the low water usage at the Newton home, Crotts said, "Maybe I'm a water conservationist. You didn't ask me that."

When asked if he was a water conservationist, Crotts said, "There's nothing to explain. That's the water I use. I just think this is so nitpicking."

Crotts later said there is more activity going on at the home in McDonough, adding that he often lets traveling ministers stay at the home, his mother has been staying there some and his son and his friends come there to fish and stay overnight. He said his wife also sometimes stays overnight in the McDonough home, adding that, "She's not the candidate. It's not against the law for her to stay in that house."

However, Crotts said his wife is not living full-time at the house but is living with him in Newton at 365 Glynnshire Court. He said he sometimes doesn't arrive there until midnight and leaves early in the morning, which explains the lower water usage.

"I live there. Ask my neighbors," he said.

One neighbor said she's seen Crotts twice since he bought the house; another estimated he'd seen him four times. Both said they have never seen his wife.

Neighbors allege Crotts only comes to the property to do maintenance and yard work and pick up mail, and then leaves. At Christmastime, they said his tree remained lit day and night.

The homeowner's association in Glynnshire recently sent Crotts notification that his yard was in violation of the covenant there, due to an unkempt lawn. One neighbor estimated the grass and weeds on the property were as high as 1 foot tall.

Neighbors also said Crotts inquired about getting a larger mailbox than the standard size prescribed in the covenants, saying he would be out of town a lot and getting a lot of mail.

"I think the whole neighborhood knows he doesn't live there, so I don't know who he thinks he's kidding," one neighbor said.

"It's a front. That's all it is," another said. "You can rest assured I'm not voting for him. I just hate anybody that's a liar."

All neighbors the Citizen spoke with wished to remain anonymous.

Crotts said he's perplexed by his neighbors' claims.

"I've tried every way I know to be a friendly neighbor and everything else to let people know I'm there. I don't know what else to do," he said. "It just amazes me that somebody is looking to see if my Christmas tree is on. I just find this incredible."

Crotts said he has a busy schedule and is often in and out at all hours. He said he has been out of town during the last three or four months due to deaths in his family and has also spent time on the road with his son's traveling baseball team.

"It is my primary residence. If you're asking me if I spend the night there every night, no," he said.

According to Newton County tax records, Crotts purchased the 1,905-square-foot Newton County home in October for $170,000.

Crotts said he is trying to sell his 7,303-square-foot home on Ga. Highway 20 in McDonough, valued at nearly $748,000, according to tax records.

When asked if there is a for-sale sign in the yard of the McDonough home, he said no, because he "doesn't want people tracking through" the home.

Crotts' opponent, state Sen. John Douglas, R-Covington, said he's aware there's talk that Crotts may not live in the district.

"We're trying to concentrate on the issues: water resources, transportation, things that are important to families in the district, and we're continually distracted by the fact that we have a candidate we're running against who doesn't live in the district," he said.

"Frankly, this story has dragged on for two years now. There are still questions, and I think we need to find a way to put this to rest once and for all," Douglas added.

When Crotts was disqualified from running in 2006, he was leasing an apartment in the basement of a Rockdale County home. A local resident, Steve Bray, now chairman of the Newton County Republican Party, filed a residency challenge with the Secretary of State's Office alleging Crotts' primary residence was in Henry County.

An administrative law judge agreed, and the Secretary of State upheld the ruling. The Georgia Supreme Court declined to hear his appeal.

Crotts later voted and served on jury duty in Rockdale County, which he said was proof he was a resident there. He is now registered to vote in Newton County, according to the Newton County Board of Elections.

Crystal Tatum can be reached at crystal.tatum@newtoncitizen.com.