Residents voiced their frustration over increased property tax assessments and got answers to some questions about the appeals process at a June 14 town hall, but some residents felt Fulton County Chairman John Eaves and Chief Appraiser Dwight Robinson didn’t provide some answers they needed.
About 50 people came to the town hall held in the Buckhead Library, and almost all the chairs in the room were filled. The town hall was held in response to growing frustration over sudden, dramatic increases in property value for some Fulton County residents. Some property owners reported their 2017 assessed value more than doubled since 2016.
Eaves has been advocating for voiding the 2017 property assessments and reviewing them, and said expecting residents to pay much more in taxes in this short amount of time is “unjust”. Robinson maintains that almost all assessments are accurate and the increases are necessary to comply with state law.
Robinson and Eaves answered questions about the appeal process and why the increases occurred, but, at some points, neither Eaves nor Robinson could answer some questions, especially concerning why the assessments have not kept up with market value each year and instead increased dramatically. Eaves said he does not have control over the assessor’s office, and Robinson said he has only been in his position since September 2016 and can’t speak about other administrations.
Robinson explained at the meeting that the values had to increase because the previous assessments were not valuing properties high enough. State law requires counties value properties between 90 and 110 percent of their fair market value, and the state Department of Revenue found that Fulton was valuing properties at 79.6 percent of their market value. Robinson said he was forced to raise the values in accordance with the law and the 2017 assessment digest values properties at 98 percent of their fair market value.
“This is my fourth town hall meeting. I hear you. I understand you are fearful,” Robinson said. “But my job is mandated by state law.”
However, he could not explain why past years have not steadily reflected the market rising. The values are at 98 percent instead of the required lowest amount of 90 percent because he has to account for property sales that may bring the percentage down that will occur between now and when the Department of Revenue reviews the digest.
The real factor to blame for high property taxes is the millage rate, the rate at which properties will be taxed on per $1,000 of assessed value, Robinson said. Assessors have no control over the millage rate and it is set by other departments, including the Board of Commissioners and school systems, he said.
Eaves has requested the Board of Assessors, comprised of citizens appointed by the county commissioners, to void the current assessments, conduct a review and freeze the assessments to 2016 levels. The board met in an emergency session June 8, but decided not to act on Eaves’ request at the meeting and instead opted to seek legal advice before acting on it. The board is expected by Eaves to act on his request at the June 15 meeting. The meeting will be held in the Fulton County Government Center at 12:30 p.m. The center is located downtown at 141 Pryor St SW.
Robinson said that while Eaves and Vice Chairman Bob Ellis have “a difference of opinion” than Robinson does, all the tax assessments should not be thrown out to solve a few mistakes.
“I don’t think the system should be hijacked by two commissioners. The system we have in place works,” he said.
Of the 318,000 residential parcels assessed, 22 percent have seen increases greater than 50 percent, Robinson said. Through some review, the assessors have learned some mistakes were made on some assessments and those will be fixed.
“You don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” he said.
The system is designed to allow for mistakes on 2 to 4 percent of parcels, and those mistakes will be fixed, Robinson said.
“Everyone’s going to have a fair chance of getting what they think their value is if they have the evidence to support that,” he said.
If the board does throw out the 2017 assessments, the county will face several consequences, including state fines, loss of taxes on new builds and lawsuits from municipalities, Robinson said.
If the board doesn’t approve Eaves’ request, Eaves said two board members whose terms will soon expire will be replaced, which could potentially affect what happens with the assessments.
Robinson said the appeal process is simple and only requires one sheet of paper that gives a list of options for why a property owner wants to appeal. However, people at the meeting argued that it takes time to figure out and some have had to hire attorneys to assist them. Several people were there on behalf of their elderly parents who could not complete the form on their own.
“Your system is broken,” one resident said to Robinson. “You’ve got to figure out to streamline this.”
Residents can appeal by submitting a paper copy or online. Appeals must be filed by July 10 and can be based on taxability, uniformity, value or denial of an exemption.
Taxability would include being assessed for taxes on an exempt property such as a church, Robinson said.
Uniformity would be based on if comparable properties in the same neighborhood were valued less than the appellant’s property. Robinson suggested those making an appeal look at similar properties on their street and compare the value of those homes to their home by looking on fultoncountytaxes.org.
Value is based on if the assessment placed the value too high by making errors such as reporting too many rooms, renovations that didn’t occur or the wrong size. One homeowner at the meeting said his home assessment included four rooms and a half bathroom that don’t exist. Property owners can attach photos showing that the home hasn’t renovated or a professional appraisal detailing the size of the house. Those documents can also be submitted later in the appeal process, but the process may go more quickly if submitted with the appeal, Robinson said.
Robinson also explained, in response to questions, that some property owners who have a homestead freeze as part of a homestead exemption may have seen that freeze removed. The freeze can be applied for by property owners and freezes home values for three years, but the values must be recalculated if any improvements or additions were done to the home that resulted in increased square footage. Robinson said they found out a few years ago the assessors should be reassessing homes if property owners made additions, but didn’t have the tools necessary to do so until the 2017 tax assessments. About 34,000 of the 170,000 property owners who have a homestead freeze had to have their property value reassessed in 2017 due to additions.
Melissa Samford, a Wildwood neighborhood resident, complained about what she sees as a lack of transparency from the county. She argued that it’s difficult to make an appeal when she doesn’t have access to documents detailing how the assessors determined the value of her home. Robinson said that information is obtainable by contacting the board, but Samford said she has tried that with no success.
Samford, who said her home value increased 101 percent in the neighborhood near Memorial Park, said after the meeting she feels Robinson is “completely out of touch” and doesn’t understand why homeowners are so upset.
A resident at the meeting on behalf of her parents who live in Darlington Circle in the Peachtree Park neighborhood said the meeting did not provide enough information on how to complete the appeal process.
“For people who don’t know much about it, it’s difficult to understand,” the resident, who did not want her name used, said.
Another resident, Bryant Cumming, who lives in West Paces Ferry, said he appreciates Eaves and Robinson patiently answering questions, but feels some questions are left unanswered, including why the assessments did not keep up with market value over the years.
“Someone has to be held accountable,” Cumming, whose property’s value went up over 60 percent, said.