Fulton County residents’ property taxes will remain high next year and providing relief rests mostly on the shoulders’ of local state senators and representatives, Fulton County Commissioner Lee Morris said at Nov. 9 Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods meeting.

He also said tax bills were sent Nov. 9 and residents should receive them in the next few days.

Fulton County Commissioner Lee Morris.

Morris, who represents Buckhead and parts of Sandy Springs, was this Buckhead Council meeting’s guest speaker. Nancy Meister, who represents Buckhead on the Atlanta Public Schools board, also spoke at the meeting.

The representatives were invited to speak about Fulton County property assessments, which have been a source of controversy since bills went out over the summer and many residents were shocked by large increases in their property assessments.

“It’s certainly been a disaster and a fiasco,” Morris said.

The tax digest, which documents the county’s property values, was recently rejected by the state Department of Revenue, causing bills to be delayed and school districts to experience cash flow problems.

The rejection prevents Fulton from collecting property taxes, but a judge ruled to give the county a Temporary Collection Order, which allows the county to collect taxes.

Although bills were sent Nov. 9, they will be dated Nov. 15, in compliance with the judge’s order, Morris said. Taxes are due 45 days after bills go out in Atlanta. In the rest of the county, the deadline is 60 days.

The bills will be based on the 2017 digest sent to the Department of Revenue, which used numbers from the 2016 digest for residential properties. Although the digest was rejected by the department, the bills will not be altered and the amount residents owe will not change, Morris said.

Commissioners voted to freeze property assessments at 2016 levels to relieve residents from high increases, but the assessments will still increase in 2018.

“Arguably what we did was kick the can down the road for another year,” he said.

To prepare for next year when residents will again see similar increases, commissioners are looking at ways to reform the assessment process, Morris said. They are also preparing to send notice of probable increases to residents in advance of 2018 bills being sent.

“We’re going to try to have a whole lot more transparency,” Morris said. 

The reason the property assessments increased dramatically in 2017 is because the assessors were not increasing the assessments in line with increases in property values for several years, Morris said.

The Board of Assessors is in control of the assessment process and, by law, commissioners do not have input on the process. The state intended to prevent politicians from meddling the process, Morris said.

The board is comprised of residents the board appoints, and Morris doesn’t fault them for the problems.

“I don’t want to throw them under the bus. They did the best they could,” he said.

One option, which would likely take General Assembly action, would be allowing the assessment process to be completely outsourced, which is the way Cobb County does its assessments, Morris said.

Morris would also like the General Assembly to make homestead exemptions more uniform across cities and school districts in the county. The income levels and ages needed to qualify for exemptions differs for different bodies, leading to mistakes and confusion, Morris said.

Meister, who represents Buckhead on the APS board, encouraged residents at the meeting to pay their tax bills as soon as they receive them. APS has experienced cash flow issues because tax bills were delayed, leading APS to furlough every employee that is not a teacher for two days, Meister said.

“It’s horrible to tell people that they aren’t going to get paid for two days in the middle of the holidays,” she said.

Meister said she is disappointed that little has been done to help not have this happen next year.

“It’s just disappointing to me that it doesn’t sound like there’s a lot of progress being made,” she said. “Governor Deal needs to address it.”