Fulton commissioners ask for high property assessments to be rescinded

6:54 p.m Tuesday, June 6, 2017 Local
Areas in Fulton County that saw the largest increases in assessed value. FULTON COUNTY

Calling into question the credibility of the board that assesses property values for Fulton County residents, county leaders on Tuesday asked the group to “immediately rescind” the assessments that went out late last month and to review their work to ensure it is accurate.

The request comes as residents countywide are flooding their elected representatives with phone calls and emails, questioning the assessments that in some neighborhoods were up by as much as 79 percent. Of almost 320,000 residential parcels, more than half saw their values rise by more than 20 percent and residents in 99 neighborhoods could see increases of 50 percent or more.

The median increase was 13 percent.

Creel McCormack, who lives in the Sherwood Forest subdivision in Midtown, said it wasn’t too long after she opened her assessment that the phone calls began.

“Neighbors started to talk very quickly and ask, ‘What was yours,’” said McCormack, whose assessment jumped 62 percent.

She allowed that perhaps her neighborhood had been under-assessed and that it was only a matter to time before the assessments went up. But to spring it on homeowners without much explanation backing the numbers and to do it all at one time is wrong, she said.

“You can’t just do this to people in one year,” she said.

In fact, that’s just what happened: the county neglected to keep up with rising valuations as the economy improved. But there are other problems, too.

In a letter to the county Board of Assessors, the only body that has purview over assessments, Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves and Vice Chairman Bob Ellis raised a series of issues. They said homes where property values should have been frozen after successful appeals saw their assessed values rise; exemptions were applied improperly or not at all; high land values indicate there may have been data input errors; and entire neighborhoods are drastically different from their neighbors nearby.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to say there are serious credibility questions here,” Ellis said. “We represent a constituency that told us loud and clear that some of these things make no sense.”

The commissioners’ request, to the Board of Assessors, says the large hikes are likely to lead to a “record number of appeals” that will force the issue to the courts.

By calling on the Board of Assessors to reconsider their assessments, Eaves and Ellis are trying to minimize the impact on residents and avoid the issue going to court.

“We’re hearing about sticker shock, but if it was just a valuation issue, we wouldn’t be making this request,” Ellis said. “I’ve seen a gross number of things that caused me concern about accuracy.”

But the board is independent, and the county commission “can’t mandate or compel them to” take any action, he said.

“Taking immediate action is the prudent and right thing to do,” they wrote. “Without immediate action, countless people will experience undue and unnecessary hardship.”

Their request also comes a day after the Atlanta City Council passed a resolution asking the board to delay the assessments and requested the Fulton Tax Assessor to appear before the council to explain his methodology.

Residents have the ability to appeal their assessments if they think their properties have been valued incorrectly. The property values are used as a basis to determine the millage rate, which in turn creates the county tax digest.

“I want to know why they made such a rapid change,” said Midtown resident Bill Cleveland, whose assessment rose 50 percent. “It would be interesting to see what they are basing these numbers on.”

The preliminary tax digest for 2016 was $59.2 billion. That’s up from $51.99 billion in 2012, though the tax digest has fallen some years. Because the millage rate has not been set, the 2017 tax digest has not yet been determined.

Eugene James, an economist for housing information company Metrostudy, said homeowners enjoyed a drop in valuations during the recession when the foreclosure crisis pushed home prices downward and most assessments remained steady or even dipped.

But what goes down, must come up.

“I think the problem is they kept them down for too long a period,” James said.

Home values have risen sharply in the past three or four years for a number of reasons, including a tight supply of homes for sale and robust job growth that is attracting hundreds of new residents hoping to find jobs.

If more than 5 percent of values are in dispute, the digest can be rejected and the issue can go to court, said Ellen Mills, the director of local government services for the Department of Revenue.

Roswell resident Neil Nelson said it doesn’t make sense that homeowners pay the price for the county’s inaction on properly increasing assessed value over the past several years.

He has had conversations with friends and neighbors who are confused about next steps: pay a bill of potentially thousands of dollars or try to appeal and hope they can get some relief.

“I told them to appeal,” said Nelson, whose assessment increased 42 percent and who has already entered his appeal online.

R.J. Morris, a member of the Board of Assessors, said he is in favor of granting the commissioners’ request. In fact, he would like to take it even further, by sending out assessments that are the same as 2016 assessed values and taking a year to look at the 2017 numbers again.

He doesn’t expect other board members to agree, though.

“I’ll vote for it, but I’m one vote,” he said. “You need three votes for it to pass.”

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