Many Fulton County homeowners are finally dealing with major property tax assessment increases after last year’s outrage-induced freeze. State Rep. Beth Beskin (R-Atlanta) drew about 250 of them – the vast majority complaining of assessment boosts of 40 percent or higher — to a kind of self-help meeting in Buckhead June 7 where the main message from officials was: “Appeal!”
The deadline for those valuation appeals is July 6, and any appeal taken to the Board of Equalization will get an automatic three-year value freeze, no matter what, speakers said at the meeting held at the Atlanta International School. That advice was as simple as the tax appraisal and assessment system is complicated.
Fulton’s property tax system has long been a target of complaints, but the latest round of public outrage came with sharply increased appraisals after years of not keeping up with market values. Some of the concern is simply about saving a buck, but displacement is a real concern for some homeowners, especially seniors.
“We’re not denying our values are going up… This is the time of year where you talk about how terrible your house is and you don’t make any money,” said Beskin. But she said people may be “taxed out” of their homes, or at least forced to cash in savings or take on renters.
Complaints about the system flowed freely, including from Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore, who just joined a lawsuit over her assessment. She and other officials offered tips on lowering the assessments and delivered calming advice on the near certainty of county and Atlanta government millage rate rollbacks, but anxiety lingered over the details and a possible Atlanta Public Schools rate increase. Beskin and state Sen. Jen Jordan (D-Atlanta) sponsored legislation that could provide even more exemptions – a 2.6 percent cap on Atlanta tax homestead increases and a short-term exemption of the first $50,000 of value from school taxes — but not until 2019 and only if voters approve the laws this November.
Lee Morris, a Fulton County commissioner representing Buckhead and Sandy Springs, said he’s one of the residents who could theoretically get taxed out. He expects that millage rate rollbacks will cut his “astounding” 83 percent assessment increase, which rose from roughly $11,000 to $20,000. But if it didn’t, he said, he and his wife would be moving to lower-taxed Cobb County.
Moore said that property tax messes are just part of Atlanta’s housing affordability problem. “If we’re running our homeowners, running our commissioners, out of the city,” the system has failed for them and for renters ultimately affected, too, she said.
“The chickens have come home to roost and unfortunately we can’t afford all the chickens that have come home,” Moore said of the assessments.
Morris and Moore said their governments likely will roll back tax rates to be revenue-neutral or better, as they’ve done historically. But Nancy Meister, a Buckhead representative on the Atlanta Board of Education, couldn’t say the same about APS. Beskin suggested it is poised to boost its budget by at least 10 percent and not roll back taxes to be revenue-neutral. However, Beskin says APS won’t change its longtime 21.74 millage rate, which accounts for just over half of property taxes in Atlanta.
“We don’t know where this is going to land,” said Meister, noting that Fulton has not yet delivered its tax digest. She said the board “really will strive and work hard to make sure not everybody is being taken advantage of” and roll back the tax rate as much as possible. She also pointed out that the school system had to issue a tax anticipation note – at a cost of $400,000 in interest and fees – to pay the bills during last year’s assessment freeze.
The complexity of the appraisal and assessment system was evident in the nearly 40 pages of material about it – including a sheet of corrections – handed out by the county and Maggie Paynich, a real estate agent who is on a homestead exemption educational task force established by county Commission Chairman Robb Pitts.
Former Buckhead-area City Councilmember Yolanda Adrean spoke about how she knocked $500,000 off her estimated assessment by challenging a “quality” section. She blasted the confusing forms and process.
“You shouldn’t have to hire an attorney to figure out these exemptions,” Adrean said. “The process has run amok… Taxes have to be fair. They have to be equitable. They have to be transparent.”
Fulton County Commission Chairman Robb Pitts spent the meeting listening. “We’re working on a lot of what came up,” he said after the meeting, though the commission controls very little about the state-dictated property tax system. He cited clearer materials and better training of Board of Equalization members as among the initiatives. Pitts, a Buckhead resident, also said he’s pleased with the 32 to 35 percent increase in his home’s estimated value.
R.J. Morris, a member of the county Board of Assessors, presented himself as another public advocate. He’s a former challenger to county tax commissioner Arthur Ferdinand, long controversial as the state’s highest-paid elected official due to a law allowing him to collect a fee on tax lien situations.
“Let me tell you something right now — I hate property taxes,” said Morris, who went on to criticize the Board of Equalization: “Let’s just say I call the BOE the B-O-Z-O.” He said anyone with tax assessment problems can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
There were plenty complaints to field. Polled by Beskin via a show of hands, the majority of attendees had assessments increase over 40 percent and many more than 60 percent; about a dozen had increases of 100 percent or more. The vast majority of attendees had lived in their homes at least 15 years.
Cleo Meyer, a resident of Buckhead’s 26th Street, said she bought her house last November for $865,000, but assessors valued it at $1.12 million. An assessed value above the purchase price in the same year was once barred by law; advice at the meeting conflicted as to whether it still is. Either way, Meyer said, “It’s stressful” and unexplained.
The Board of Equalization – a group of trained volunteer homeowners who review some appeals – was widely criticized as “hostile” and incompetent. Lee Morris, the county commissioner, raised Atlanta north-south division as an issue, saying that almost all BOE members live “south of I-20” and recalled one member who handled his appeal years ago repeatedly asking him, “Where’s the golf course?” in an apparent implication he was extremely wealthy. Morris said the county is trying to improve BOE’s service and needs to “weed those people out.”
Moore, the council president, recently joined a class-action lawsuit over the assessment of a house she bought in 2015 in Historic Collier Heights. She says the next year’s assessed value jumped to the sales price, not the lower value of surrounding homes, which would violate a legal requirement of uniformity in neighborhood assessments. “You can’t make this up,” she said after the meeting.
Bryan Grant, a real estate broker and vice president of the Underwood Hills Neighborhood Association, complained about many years of appraisal and assessment oddities. After the meeting, he touted a constitutional cap on homestead properties like Florida has and said, “This whole song and dance… causes gentrification, corrodes the integrity of neighborhoods and makes us have no confidence in how we’re led and taxed.”
Correction: A previous version of this article said Beskin implied that Atlanta Public Schools might raise the millage rate; she was implying that it would increase its budget under the current millage rate.