- Arielle Kass The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Thrilling residents and frustrating governments that depend on rising property values to fund operations, Fulton County commissioners voted unanimously Wednesday to freeze residential assessments at 2016 levels.
The move is intended to ease the expected burden for residents worried they could not afford to pay their higher tax bills after 2017 assessments rose dramatically. The proposed residential tax digest was up $6.6 billion, to $36.3 billion, for 2017.
Half of the county’s nearly 320,000 parcels had values that rose by 20 percent or more, while almost a quarter had value increases that were up at least 50 percent. Such increases could result in huge jumps in tax bills, unless local governments reduce their tax rates accordingly.
Hapeville officials objected to the freeze and Atlanta Public Schools officials have said it could lead to layoffs and keep teachers from getting promised raises.
A spokesman for the state Department of Revenue said the department is reviewing the board’s action.
The high assessments stem from Fulton’s delinquency as property values rose, and commissioners agreed that the freeze was only a temporary fix.
“This is not a final solution,” Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves said. “This is a first step.”
In addition to freezing values, commissioners gave Chief Appraiser Dwight Robinson the purview to phase in new valuations before 2019. To increase values drastically in one year “is just unfair,” Commissioner Liz Hausmann said.
“I had pretty much no option,” Robinson said of his decision to return assessment levels to fair market value after a December letter from the state Department of Audits and Accounts said Fulton had fallen below required levels. “If it helps me to phase in increases, then I don’t have a problem with the resolution.”
Commissioners cited an 1881 law that gives them “the power to correct any errors in the tax digest” in allowing them to freeze values. Last week, they had asked members of the county’s Board of Assessors to do so, but that board said it did not have the authority.
Matt Kunz, a member of the Milton city council thanked commissioners for their response. Milton, Johns Creek and Atlanta city councils had sent letters to commissioners urging them to rescind the 2017 assessments.
Not everyone thought the move was a good idea, though.
“This is a knee-jerk reaction to a real problem,” Fulton County Commissioner Marvin Arrington said before voting in favor of it. “I just disagree with kicking the can down the road.”
Hapeville’s mayor and members of its council sent a letter to commissioners Tuesday bemoaning the short notice they had to respond to the plan. In it, they urged commissioners to reconsider, saying depressed assessments had led to artificially high tax rates.
“We believe a mandatory roll back action to 2016 property values will harm our community’s ability to fund critical public safety services such as police and fire operations,” the letter said.
Josh Powell, a Hapeville city councilman, said he wished commissioners had left the assessments alone. He said the county, cities and school districts can adjust their tax rates to minimize the impact on residents.
In Atlanta, the school district was counting on a 6 percent assessment increase that would allow the district to keep the same tax rate, but collect about $24 million more from taxpayers. In response to the freeze, the school board could raise its tax rate or cut spending, but cutting too deep could put programs officials believe are critical to children’s success in jeopardy.
The school board will meet Thursday to discuss its budget. A spokesperson for Fulton County Schools said that Board of Education would meet also Thursday to discuss the impact of the freeze on the 2018 budget.
Commissioners heard from hundreds of residents over the past few weeks who said there were errors in their assessments. Their stories were “heart-wrenching,” Fulton County Commissioner Lee Morris said.
“It’s really tough when people start crying,” he said. “Sometimes it’s anger, but mostly, it’s fear.”
The county’s legislative delegation met earlier this week to debate solutions, and Sen. John Albers, R-Roswell, said he has drafted legislation that would limit the tax increase residents see each year. Fulton and Sandy Springs are the only governments that have caps in place.
Additional suggestions included school tax exemptions for senior citizens and annual property assessments. Albers said it is his “absolute intention” to pass multiple changes in Fulton next year.
New property assessments will be sent out, but likely will not arrive until mid-August. The freeze will delay Fulton’s process in setting its tax rate and will likely mean that other cities also have to delay. How it will affect tax bills remains to be seen.
The move also means that all appeals that have been filed this year will be voided, though property owners will have 45 days to appeal after new letters go out. About 5,500 people had filed appeals by mid-day Wednesday, with more than two weeks to go before the deadline.
There are some assessments that will still rise. Commercial properties will not revert to 2016 levels. Additionally, people who built additions to their homes and properties that didn’t exist in 2016 will be valued using 2017 assessments.
“One of the things I like about this action … is that it demonstrates this government will listen,” Commissioner Emma Darnell said of the freeze. “Not only will we listen, we’ll do something about it.”