Amid outrage over a huge boost in property assessments, Fulton County is rescinding appraisals for residential properties and asking the state legislature for new laws to prevent a repeat of the pain in 2018.

Hundreds of residents attended recent public meetings about the assessments to express frustration over the increases and what some see as a lack of transparency.

David Crest, a Buckhead resident, argued at a June 19 town hall meeting that all the information assessors use to appraise properties needs to available. “It’s hard to make appeals when we don’t have the information we need, and they owe it to us,” said Crest, whose property value went up 32 percent.

But residents are also grateful that Fulton County is holding the town hall meetings and giving residents an outlet to express frustration.

“I think they really are listening to us and all they can really do right now is listen,” said Diane Buckler, a Sandy Springs resident whose property value increased by 43 percent this year.

Fulton County Commissioner Lee Morris.

The Fulton County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously June 21 to rescind 2017 property tax appraisals and instead use 2016 appraisals.

The resolution passed by the board directs the Board of Assessors to use the 2016 valuations with some modifications to include new construction. Commercial properties will be assessed at 2017 levels.

This move means residents will face sharply increased appraisals next year unless the General Assembly acts, said Commissioner Lee Morris, who represents parts of Sandy Springs and all of Buckhead.

When asked what will happen with the appraisals in 2018, Morris laughed and said, “That’s a great question.”

The decision essentially passes the buck to the state legislature to solve the problem. Commissioners are hoping the legislators are able to create a cap on the percentage increase of appraisals and exemptions the county doesn’t have the power to create, such as breaks for seniors. The increased valuations could also be spread out over a few years instead of applied all at once, Morris said.

State Rep. Deborah Silcox, whose district includes parts of Sandy Springs and Buckhead, attended a June 19 town hall meeting on the appraisals and said legislators are aware of the tax increases and will try to address them in the next legislative session.

State Rep. Deborah Silcox.

New assessments that will use 2016 numbers for residential properties will be mailed out in August. A new 45-day appeal period will begin when property owners receive them. State Rep. Wendell Willard (R-Sandy Springs), who is also the Sandy Springs city attorney, said property owners concerned about the original 2017 assessments should still appeal them in case the 1880s-era law the Board of Commissioners used to justify using 2016 numbers is challenged. That current appeal period runs through July 10.

The vote to rescind the 2017 appraisals comes after residents voiced frustration over higher property valuations for tax purposes and what they see as a lack of transparency in the Board of Assessor’s office. Over 200 residents came to two town hall meetings held by Fulton County officials in Buckhead and Sandy Springs to ask questions and express concerns.

One was held in the Buckhead Library on June 14, and one at St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church near the Sandy Springs and Buckhead border on June 19.

County Commission Chairman John Eaves hosted the earlier town hall meeting and Morris held the later one, along with Chief Appraiser Dwight Robinson who attended both.

Eaves advocated 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 appraisals are accurate and the increases are necessary to comply with state law.

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. The 2017 assessment digest values properties at 98 percent of their fair market value.

Fulton County Chairman John Eaves listens as Chief Appraiser Dwight Robinson answers a question from a homeowner at a June 14 town hall on propoerty tax assessments at the Buckhead Libaray. (Evelyn Andrews)

“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.”

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.

The millage rate is what’s to blame for high taxes, Robinson said. Assessors have no control over the rate and it is set by other departments, including the county’s Board of Commissioners and school systems, he said.

Of the 318,000 residential parcels assessed, 22 percent have seen increases greater than 50 percent, Robinson said. Through 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.

Owners of older homes complained at the town hall meetings that they should be protected from rising assessments. Their houses are not worth as much as others in the neighborhood, they argued, but as new builds raise property values, owners of older homes are becoming unable to pay their taxes.

“I’m not complaining about progress, but I feel like my wife and I are being run out of our own neighborhood,” John Foster, a Chastain Park resident, said at the June 19 meeting.

Melissa Samford, a resident of the Wildwood neighborhood in Buckhead, complained at the June 14 meeting 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, who said her home value increased 101 percent in the neighborhood near Memorial Park, said she has tried that with no success.

At the June 19 meeting, Robinson responded to similar questions by saying he heard the complaints about transparency and all the information will be made available in the future.

Bryant Cumming, who lives on West Paces Ferry Road, said he appreciates Eaves and Robinson answering questions, but the question of why the assessments did not keep up with market value over the years went unanswered.“Someone has to be held accountable,” said Cumming, whose property’s value went up over 60 percent.

–John Ruch contributed

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