Fulton County is working to comply with state law that requires property to be valued at “fair market value,” and consequently property owners throughout Fulton County are dealing with large increases in their 2018 property assessments.

Fulton County Commissioner Lee Morris.

State law also requires that counties estimate the tax bill on the assessment notice. Because 2018 millage rates (the actual tax rates) have not been set by most jurisdictions by the time of assessment notices, the estimates must use 2017 rates.

Hopefully actual bills will be lower than the estimates, because many jurisdictions “roll back” millage rates to be “revenue neutral” – so jurisdictions do not receive more revenue as a result of reappraisals, and only receive net increased revenues from new construction. For example, in each year I have served on the Fulton County Commission, we “rolled back” the county’s millage to be even lower than revenue neutral — a decrease of almost 12 percent since 2014.

With more than 340,000 parcels in Fulton, there will be many errors in the county’s valuations. Taxpayers should appeal their assessment notices if they think the values shown are greater than fair market value, the property is not being valued “uniformly” with other properties, or there are errors in the information on which the assessment notice is based.

Appeal online at fultonassessor.org, or print a form from that website and mail or hand-deliver it. There are professionals who will handle appeals for a fee, but many folks choose to handle their appeals themselves. The goal, after all appeals are resolved, is to have a tax digest that is generally “fair market value,” with only modest future increases.

But that won’t solve all of the problems. One remaining major problem is that people are facing the very real prospect of not being able to afford to continue living in their homes.

A flaw in funding local governments with property taxes is that the amount of tax has nothing to do with ability to pay. When someone buys a home, he knows the home’s costs, including taxes, are manageable within his household budget. Small tax increases can thereafter generally be expected and addressed within the budget. But large sudden increases are often not affordable, and even modest increases over many years can result in the household budget no longer handling the tax bill.

Some jurisdictions (for example, California) use the purchase price of a property as the basis for assessment, with small limited increases annually. When the property is sold, the new purchase price applies. No appraisals are needed, nor are arguments about fair market value, simplifying the system immensely. Other jurisdictions cap rates of increases to address the problem discussed in the preceding paragraph.

So-called “floating” homestead exemptions, where the homestead exemption increases with the increases in values, similarly address this problem. Fulton County and Sandy Springs portions of property tax bills have had floating homestead exemptions for many years.

November referenda, if the voters approve, will apply such exemptions to Fulton County schools, the city of Atlanta and other cities’ tax bills. Unfortunately, such an exemption for Atlanta Public Schools, over half of Atlanta residents’ taxes, will not be on November’s ballot. (A modest dollar increase in the APS homestead exemption will be on November’s ballot.)

While floating homestead exemptions will ameliorate the burden of future value increases, they will not help those who already cannot afford the taxes on their homes. More significant relief for seniors in Atlanta is necessary, allowing folks to age in place, rather than forcing them to sell their homes because of the increased taxes resulting from value appreciation.

We all know folks who moved to Cobb County or other jurisdictions with significant senior property tax relief. Jurisdictions have lots of reasons to want to allow seniors to age in place, aside from the moral imperative, including dining and entertainment spending patterns that help local economies, limited demands for services, and travel patterns that reduce rush hour traffic.

The General Assembly made some strides in the last session to provide fairness and relief, but further steps in the 2019 legislative session are needed.

Lee Morris represents Buckhead and part of Sandy Springs on the Fulton County Board of Commissioners.