- Arielle Kass The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
In the face of calls from frustrated residents and county and city leaders to reconsider starkly higher property assessments across Fulton County, Fulton County Chief Appraiser Dwight Robinson is standing by his work.
“Statistically, we’re OK,” he said Wednesday. “The values are good.”
Robinson acknowledged that for many homeowners, the property assessments they received late last month represent a sharp uptick in value. But he said after years of ignoring a rising market, the county is likely to be fined by the state if he doesn’t capture the increase in this year’s assessments.
Atlanta’s city council and the chairman and vice chairman of the Fulton County Board of Commissioners earlier this week called on the county’s Board of Assessors to rescind the assessments. They asked the Board of Assessors to take more time to review the notices that had been sent.
That board scheduled a meeting for Thursday to consider the request, and one of the five members has said he will vote in favor of it. But Robinson said he would recommend that others do not.
“That’s going to be my recommendation, that we not rescind,” he said.
The furor over property assessments comes after nearly a quarter of homeowners in the county are seeing assessments that are up 50 percent or more. Half of the county’s nearly 320,000 parcels received assessments that are at least 20 percent higher.
The jumps came because Fulton didn’t maintain regular increases and “had to play catch up,” Steve Pruitt, the former Gwinnett County chief appraiser who is consulting for the Fulton Board of Assessors, said previously.
Robinson said not keeping up with rising values was “a decision made by the previous administration.” He took the job late last year.
“I don’t know why they did what they did,” he said. “The two people with the answers, they’re gone.”
Shortly after he took over, Robinson said, he received a letter from the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts that indicated Fulton’s assessments would be out of compliance.
The state requires governments to value residential properties between 90 and 110 percent of fair market value. The letter indicated that Fulton County was below 80 percent of fair market value.
“That was my wake-up call we had to do something,” Robinson said.
The county had been fined $1.75 million in 2013, the last time it was evaluated, for other issues. It’s still fighting that fine, but the letter meant that another fine is likely.
Robinson said he needed to boost values to get back in compliance, but that he’s in a no-win situation. Either homeowners are upset that their values are so much higher, or commissioners are mad that they lose revenue through low assessments or fines.
“I’m going to get cussed out by taxpayers or cussed out by the Board of Commissioners for not having the values where they’re supposed to be,” he said. “It’s really a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation.”
The consternation about higher assessments comes from the fear that property taxes will rise. Governments set their millage rates based on total assessments, and while they are required to roll back the millage rate — or advertise a tax increase if they choose to keep the rate the same — the rollback rate could still mean large tax increases for those homeowners who saw the biggest jumps in their values.
Mary Norwood, a member of the Atlanta city council, came to the Fulton County Commission meeting Wednesday to sound the alarm. She said the issue affected every socioeconomic and demographic group in Atlanta, and she was concerned with the entire assessment process. Norwood asked for a comprehensive review before the July 10 deadline for appeals.
“We are very concerned over at the city,” she said.
Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves reiterated his request to Robinson that the Board of Assessors rescind the values. Other commissioners questioned whether the increases could be phased in over time. They also asked about issues with exemptions that weren’t showing up on notices and properties that should have been frozen after appeals, but still saw their values rise.
When paired with incorrect appeals deadlines in the notices that were sent and a website that had not been updated, Fulton County Vice Chairman Bob Ellis said he had questions about the Board of Assessors’ transparency and credibility. The county has already asked the state Department of Revenue to review its processes.
“I have zero confidence in what I’ve seen,” Ellis said. “Certainly, you’ve done nothing to restore all of that.”
Ellis and two other commissioners have scheduled town hall meetings to discuss the assessments. The first is Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at the Fulton County Water Resources Operations Center at 11575 Maxwell Road in Alpharetta.
There, he is likely to hear from residents like Lillian Birchette, an East Point resident who said her assessment doubled this year.
“It’s an outrage,” she said.
Commissioners Liz Hausmann said the increases put her and others “in a very untenable situation.”
“I’ve seen some really, really shocking situations,” she said. “I do think it’s ridiculous it should go up so much in one year. I don’t think it’s right.”
District 2 Commissioner Bob Ellis, Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at the Fulton County Water Resources Operations Center at 11575 Maxwell Road in Alpharetta.
District 1 Commissioner Liz Hausmann Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Johns Creek Environmental Campus at 8100 Holcomb Bridge Road in Alpharetta.
District 3 Commissioner Lee Morris June 19 at 7 p.m. at St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church at 4393 Garmon Rd NW in Atlanta.