Fulton County to freeze residential property values at 2016 levels

3:11 p.m Monday, June 19, 2017 Local
More than 100 people came to the Fulton County Board of Assessors meeting Thursday to urge the board to rescind property assessments. Monday, the chairman of the county’s Board of Commissioners said he could do it. ARIELLE KASS/AKASS@AJC.COM

Property values in Fulton County will be frozen at 2016 levels, Commission Chairman John Eaves said Monday, after attorneys this weekend found an obscure law that gives the commission the ability to change the tax digest.

The move comes after members of the Board of Assessors decided Thursday that they did not have the legal authority to rescind assessments, which jumped dramatically this year.

“It’s good news,” Eaves said. “The law allows us to correct it.”

Eaves said the law was discovered late Friday through research by the county attorney’s office.

Fulton commissioners will vote Wednesday on a proposal, which is still in the works, that would keep residential values at last year’s levels. Eaves said he expects the county will still be able to capture increased values for new construction and home additions in the tax digest. And he said commercial properties will be assessed at 2017 levels.

A spokesperson for the state Department of Revenue said the department has no comment on the plan, or whether the department would challenge it.

The decision comes after weeks of furor over high assessments. Nearly a quarter of the 318,000 residential parcels in Fulton had assessments that were up 50 percent or more; half were up by at least 20 percent. Local governments had pleaded with the Board of Assessors to reduce the values and rescind the assessments.

Eaves said the board has the authority to do it because of “an old, obscure law, going back to the 1880s,” before the Board of Commissioners even existed. The commissioners of roads and revenues were precursors, he said, who had the authority to modify the county’s tax digest. And while laws have been updated since that time, Eaves said nothing was passed that negated that ability.

“I feel we’re on legal grounds to correct it,” he said. “It’s a good-faith effort to try to correct a wrong.”

Residents have been lobbying for relief from the high values, which Fulton Chief Appraiser Dwight Robinson said came because Fulton had not kept up with an improving housing market. But representatives from the Atlanta Public Schools have said keeping last year’s values could be detrimental to them.

Officials are still hoping for a compromise that will allow the district to collect more tax money, but still offer homeowners some relief.

“I hope we can find a way that protects homeowners, of course, but also ensures that APS can continue to do the work we’re doing to turn around the school district,” board chairman Courtney English said.

Superintendent Meria Carstarphen said last week that freezing Fulton County property values could lead to significant cuts in Atlanta schools.

Atlanta Public Schools was counting on an assessment increase of about 6 percent this year. That would allow the school district to keep the same tax rate as last year, but collect about $24 million more from local taxpayers. The assessments released this spring were a potential windfall for the district.

Cancelling the higher assessments completely, could mean sharp cuts, such as leaving hundreds of classroom positions vacant, laying off other employees and reneging on promises of raises for teachers, Carstarphen said.

Even if the assessments are frozen the school board could raise the tax rate to bring in more money.

School officials suggested a compromise such as phasing in higher assessments over time. In return, the board would consider setting a tax rate below last year’s, English said.

A spokesperson for Fulton County Schools did not respond to a request for comment.

Robinson, the chief appraiser, said there are concerns with using 2016 assessments that the county would need to work out, such as how they value residential properties that weren’t on the books last year, how they handle appeals and how they defend the values they assign to properties.

Commissioners need to ensure that all taxpayers are treated the same way, he said.

“As long as they address all the issues, it’s their prerogative,” he said. “If they’re not going to look at all the issues, they’re probably just kicking the can down the road.”

For his part, Eaves said the freeze will give the county time to explore alternatives that could ease the burden for taxpayers next year and in the future. Commissioners will consider reducing the school tax for seniors, freezing property values for people who live in gentrifying neighborhoods, capping the amount that someone has to pay in a year and allowing residents to pay in phases.

“We’re in a little bit of uncharted territory here,” Eaves said. “It gives us time to adjust.”

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School tax exemptions for senior citizens, caps on how much property taxes can increase each year and other changes that would make higher property values more palatable to residents in Fulton County are in the works, Sen John Albers, R-Roswell, said Monday.

At a meeting of the Fulton County delegation, Albers said he has already drafted legislation that would limit the tax increase residents see each year. The bills emulate the 3 percent cap both Fulton County and Sandy Springs have in place and would apply to Atlanta and Fulton County schools, as well as all the other cities in Fulton.

Other proposals could require annual property assessments and limit huge value increases in gentrifying neighborhoods.

Albers said it is his “absolute intention” to pass multiple changes in Fulton next year. From there, he said, the bills could be applied statewide.

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