As Robb Pitts and Keisha Waites head toward a Dec. 5 runoff election for Fulton County Commission chair, they are staking out differences on leadership styles and the property tax assessment issue.
They also show different appetites for the endorsement of former candidate Gabriel Sterling, a Sandy Springs City Councilmember who topped the vote in north Fulton and most of Buckhead, but was eliminated in the Nov. 7 election.
Pitts says he has the most experience, while Waites pitches herself as a more collaborative, regional leader.
“I think that what differentiates me from [Waites] is my experience … my background and experience are far, far, far superior to hers,” Pitts said, noting he has served as a Fulton commissioner, Atlanta City Council president and City Councilmember chairing its finance and development committees. “So I’ve done it. I’ve been there.”
Pitts added that on “image and style … there is no comparison.” That’s important, he said, because “the chairman is the face of the county.”
“I see myself as a major consensus-builder and bridge-builder,” said Waites, adding that she views the chair position as a regional leader in modern metro Atlanta.
Waites said that residents everywhere in Fulton “have the same desires” – fixing an “archaic, antiquated tax system,” ensuring clean air and water, and expanding MARTA. “When we fight, everybody loses,” she said, pledging to bring people together.
Pitts said his experience includes “a demonstrated track record of working with elected officials up north,” such as legislation to help Sandy Springs buy parkland at a nominal rate when the city incorporated.
One of those current north Fulton officials is Sterling, who said he is considering whether to endorse one of his former competitors. Sterling said he is “undecided” on whether he will endorse and “undetermined” on whether he will discuss it with either of them.
Waites said she has requested Sterling’s endorsement and hopes he would join her transition team if she wins election. She said Sterling’s message was “more conservative than mine, but we are like-minded individuals” on such ideas as leading by consensus and using innovative practices.
Pitts said he has not spoken to Sterling, but claimed to have gained support of many of Sterling’s backers.
During the campaign, Sterling hammered Pitts with a TV ad showing him waving a handful of taxpayer money and filed an official complaint accusing Pitts of misreporting campaign spending.
Property tax crisis
Property tax assessments went from controversy to crisis this year. The situation began with surprise sharply increased assessments for many homeowners. County assessors said that merely reflected the booming real estate market’s realities, while officials widely acknowledged that increases should have happened gradually over recent years. In June, the county commission, under former Chairman John Eaves, froze assessments at 2016 levels as a stopgap measure, but the state Department of Revenue later rejected the freeze, sending school system budgets into chaos. A court order allowed tax collections to continue while a long-term solution is found.
Pitts opposed the assessment freeze, while Waites expressed uncertainty about the tactic, and the candidates had different points of emphasis in dealing with the situation.
“I don’t know what I would have done, looking back,” Waites said when asked about the assessment freezing tactic. But she expressed concern that some areas saw sharp increases while others did not, raising “equity” issues and concerns of “back-door … tax increases” when appraisals of houses go up due to expense infill housing nearby. She said she supports limits on the size of infill housing proposed by Atlanta City Councilmember and mayoral candidate Mary Norwood.
Going forward, Waites said, she wants to “completely revise the dispute and appeal process.” She noted she has some personal knowledge of the process as owner of rental properties. Tax bills and liens on those properties became an issue after an Atlanta Journal-Constitution story that Waites calls “slanted” and “mean-spirited.” She said the taxes were never left unpaid, but rather are on a repayment plan, and that most of the liens were placed when other family members owned the property.
Pitts said that some of the appraisals were probably wrong, but that nothing unusual was happening.
“Obviously, what I said early on and still stand by was [the situation was] a reaction to public outcry over huge increases in some cases. But property values are what they are,” he said.
“I was convinced that [assessment freeze] was not going to be acceptable to the state and I turned out to be correct,” he added, saying property owners now likely face another adjustment in the first quarter of next year.
However, Pitts said he believes the county needs more appraisers and “better technology” – and should consider outsourcing the services.