By Maggie Lee
As tens of thousands of Fulton County residents received property tax notices containing errors, politicians at a recent town hall meeting tried to mollify residents who demanded answers.
They heard demands for legal action and for closing property tax loopholes.
Atlanta City Councilwoman Yolanda Adrean, whose district takes in a portion of Buckhead, told some 70 people at a May 13 town hall meeting that her own property tax notice added up to more than the sum of its parts.
She’s in a club with a number of Fulton taxpayers who are seeing bad math, wrong exemptions or an incorrect charge for commercial garbage pickup on their property tax bills.
“There will be a second notice going out later on,” Fulton County Commission Chair John Eaves said, estimating there are 140,000 incorrect notices.
But besides anger and confusion among taxpayers, if tax bills go out late, that chokes the biggest stream of Fulton’s cities’ cash flow. Atlanta could have to issue short-term debt to keep running.
“Who is responsible for this?” a woman in the audience demanded of the panel of officials at Northside Methodist Church. She suggested the tax assessor or his software provider could be sued, depending where the fault lies. Several audience members chimed in and pressed Eaves to promise a lawsuit.
He didn’t bite: “We’re going to meet with the Board of Assessors and follow a good course after that,” he said.
The notices sent to taxpayers showed recent appraisals for tax purposes. In some cases, the notices contained a computer calculation error in figuring a homeowner’s projected tax bill. Chief Assessor Burt Manning admits some sums are wrong, but insists that all assessments are correct. “The only error was a summation — assessment notices are accurate and a 45 day appeal time applies,” Manning wrote on Twitter on May 11.
Taxpayers who received a faulty notice don’t need to appeal, Manning wrote, but should simply do the addition and send a check for the correct amount. On May 10, Manning told members of Sandy Springs City Council that the erroneous bills were mailed to residents of Atlanta and none were issued in Sandy Springs.
All this is happening when both Atlanta and Sandy Springs are trying to pass budgets for the fiscal year that starts in July. The cities need an accurate estimate of what they can expect in property taxes.
Adrean said she’s been assured that the county’s projections are correct and the cities are working with accurate numbers.
At the meeting, Fulton County Taxpayers Foundation president John Sherman charged that part of the assessment process is “corrupted.”
He attacked the 50 percent assessment abatements given to prime properties like 191 Peachtree Street on the grounds of job creation. Sherman said he’s seen the Board of Assessors hand out several commercial abatements in a single hour.
Eaves said he does find the argument that the abatements create jobs “faulty.” He said the abatements will be brought up in an upcoming meeting between the Board of Commissioners and the Board of Assessors.
But Atlanta may end up spending some of its revenue in court over a plan to shrink its pension spending. Pension and related obligations are “consuming about one of every five dollars in the general fund,” said City Councilman Howard Shook, who also represents a portion of Buckhead.
Later he hinted at a court case. “Hammering out a budget is always pretty tough,” he said. “There’s a kind of controversial deal that’s recently been made. I’ll be a little guarded in my comments since I believe a lawsuit may have already been triggered.”
Mayor Kasim Reed’s draft budget for next year would revoke some pension benefits promised to police, firefighters and other city employees with fewer than 10 years of service. It’s part of a city move away from old-style pensions that pay a portion of salary to defined-contribution schemes that depend on market returns on investments.
The city’s firefighters union is putting up a fight. Just outside the town hall meeting, a pair of firefighters handed out fliers that bashed the change. It also lambasted a taxpayers association lawsuit that seeks to discredit the current pension plan, calling the lawsuit “mean-spirited and wrong-headed.”
The FCTF describes its mission as reducing property taxes by closely overseeing Fulton and Atlanta governments and lobbying for what it argues are best practices.
The Fulton County appraiser’s office has scheduled eight public meetings over the next month, where staff will be on hand to answer questions about assessments and bills. North and central Fulton meetings are scheduled for: 10 a.m. May 20 at the North Service Center, 7741 Roswell Road; 10 a.m. June 3, at the Fulton County Courthouse, 141 Pryor Street; and 9:30 a.m. June 4 at the Dorothy C. Benson Senior Multipurpose Complex, 6500 Vernon Woods Drive. The full schedule is available at www.fultonassessor.org.