The state Department of Revenue has rejected Fulton County’s tax digest, a document detailing the county’s property value. The decision prevents the county from sending out tax bills and has some cities and school districts concerned about when they will receive tax money.
The state rejected the tax digest, saying it is “questionable” whether the Fulton County Board of Assessors had the legal authority to freeze the property assessments at 2016 values, which the Board of Commissioners voted to do after residents expressed concern and anger over assessment increases.
The state’s rejection of the tax digest means the county cannot send out tax bills to collect taxes based on the appraisals submitted.
Fulton County, Atlanta Public Schools and the Fulton County School District are challenging the rejection in court in the hope of receiving a Temporary Collection Order that would allow the county to send out tax bills and collect taxes while the county corrects the tax digest. The hearing will be held Nov. 3, but a ruling may not be issued that day.
Tax bills won’t be sent out until after the hearing. Taxes are due 45 days after bills go out in Atlanta. In the rest of the county, the deadline is 60 days.
The Fulton County School District said in a press release that the delay in sending tax bills is jeopardizing the school district’s ability to pay employees and meet other financial obligations.
“Fulton County Schools is now at the end of October with no idea of when it will get money,” the press release said.
“The delay in property tax revenue puts our district in the difficult position of having to worry about how we will pay our 14,000 hardworking employees,” Linda Bryant, the president of the school board, said in the release.
In a statement, Fulton County said the state found “routine issues with the digest.” The county’s statement also stood by the board’s decision to freeze the property values.
“Earlier this year the Board of Commissioners took an innovative approach in 2017 that was necessary to protect homeowners from financial harm in the face of swiftly rising property values. The financial security of our residents remains our first priority,” the statement said.
Renee Starzyk, the director of communications for Board of Commissioner Vice Chairman Bob Ellis’ office, said the county and Ellis will not provide any other comment on the rejection because it is pending litigation.
John Eaves, who was Fulton chairman at the time and championed the freeze, said in a press release that despite the current problems, he stands by the decisions. Eaves has since resigned from the seat to run for Atlanta mayor.
“I believe we did the right thing, and I hope that the State of Georgia will do all it can to help us help others,” Eaves said in the statement.
He also said the state was “well aware” of the plan to freeze the assessments and supported the freeze.
“The Georgia Department of Revenue was well aware of this effort and gave the county the ‘green light’ for Fulton County to find a solution,” he said.
The state cited several other problems with the tax digest other than questioning the commissioner’s legal authority to freeze assessments, including that commercial properties were stilled taxed at 2017 levels while residential properties were not.
That decision meant commercial property owners were taxed higher than residential owners and carried “a disproportionate share of the tax burden,” the state wrote in the letter to Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand.
The state also wrote in the letter that it believes not all residents’ appeals were counted because the first round of appeals were considered “null and void” after the second assessment notices were mailed.
“It is highly likely that many taxpayers did not timely exercise their appeal rights and not all appeals were properly accounted for,” the letter said.
The assessed value of residential properties was also not high enough, the state said.
The city of Sandy Springs says the tax digest dispute won’t affect its operations for now.
“The city maintains a fund balance reserve meant to cover approximately four months of operating costs should there be an unforeseen emergency,” said city spokesperson Sharon Kraun. “We are in contact with Fulton County and are following the latest regarding their interactions with the Department of Revenue about certifying the tax digest.”
Fulton County chair candidates respond
Gabriel Sterling, a Sandy Springs city councilmember who is running for Fulton chair, said Sandy Springs has enough in reserves to remain financially stable, but other jurisdictions, including other cities and the school districts, may be forced to take out loans.
The judge could rule in the Nov. 3 hearing that the county correct the current digest, use the 2017 assessments instead or start the assessment process over again and create a new digest, Sterling said. There is no indication what the judge will rule so it is “completely up in the air,” he said.
“Now, nobody knows what their taxes are,” he said. “This has caused chaos.”
Property assessments increased for most residents in 2017 because the assessors were not increasing the property values each year like they should have done, leading to sudden massive jump, Sterling said.
“The assessor’s office was underfunded and didn’t do their job,” he said.
If elected chairman, Sterling said he’d push for a homestead exemption that would cap the amount property assessments could increase each year.
Rob Pitts, who is also running for Fulton chair, said the freeze was a “knee-jerk political reaction” to the public’s “rightful outrage” about the
Pitts said the “obscure” law used by the commissioners as the legal basis for the freeze was “suspect.” He said the county should have let the assessors make the needed to adjustments to mistakes in assessments, but not throw out the entire 2017 digest.
The state’s rejection of the digest has caused problems for many jurisdictions in Fulton, Pitts said.
“Not only does the county have a problem, but the jurisdictions who rely on those revenues have a problem,” he said.
If elected chairman, Pitts said he said he would attempt to phase in the necessary increases to the assessments if there were legal way to do so.
Keisha Waites, the third candidate for the seat, said in a written statement that she is “deeply concerned” the tax digest was rejected and would use her relationships with state legislators to work on reform.
“Given that the day-to-day operations of our fifteen municipalities and the fact that our schools rely heavily on a property taxes, I am deeply concerned that the Georgia Department of Revenue did not approve the Fulton County Tax Digest,” Waites said in the statement.
“I look forward to being a part of the solution to bring meaningful tax relief and find permanent solutions streamlining the appeal/dispute process should families and business owners have merit to dispute or disagree with their property tax assessment’s,” she said.