- Arielle Kass The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Fulton County faced a dire deadline: property taxes aren’t due until Jan. 15, but the county has millions of dollars in outstanding bills to pay by Dec. 29.
“From the very beginning, we were out of time,” said Arthur Ferdinand, the county tax commissioner.
Ferdinand and other leaders can exhale. With about $270 million in property tax revenue collected by his office by mid-day Wednesday — more than half of the $479 million that is owed — the county is able to meet its financial obligations. Fulton County Schools even said in a statement that teachers would be paid Friday, ahead of Christmas. It’s a week earlier than they had planned to pay employees, in an attempt to conserve funds.
And Fitch, a ratings agency, said in a statement Friday that it expects the county to pay its bills. Its long-term prospects for borrowing money shouldn’t be hurt by short-term cash flow concerns, the agency said.
Dick Anderson, the county manager, called Ferdinand the “Julio Jones of tax commissioners” — a reference to the Falcons’ star wide receiver. Anderson said Ferdinand’s efforts to bring money in weeks before the deadline had been like a car that accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in 3.5 seconds.
“We made it,” Anderson said. “Only he can make it happen.”
How did Ferdinand get so much money to come in early? Through a series of steps that rerouted staff, appealed to mortgage companies and engaged escorts from the sheriff’s office to get money to the bank.
Ferdinand said employees who would normally be checking checks for signatures or corresponding with taxpayers about errors in their payments were instead asked to focus only on tax collection. Instead of using armored vehicles to take tax money to local banks, which Ferdinand said could delay deposits by a day, sheriff’s deputies are escorting the money so it can be processed more quickly.
Ferdinand taped public service announcements appealing to property owners to pay their bills early, and he sent letters to public utilities and called community improvement and business districts to urge them to pay. He reached out to mortgage companies, which usually wait until tax bills are due, and asked them to send money in weeks early to help the county meet its obligations.
“We have been partners a long time,” he said. “I simply told them we are involved in a difficult situation.”
Ferdinand said he doesn’t usually ask the companies to “give up their business principles” by losing out on interest from holding tax payments, but he knew that every nickel counted this time.
“It was an extraordinary year,” Ferdinand said. “We ran out of calendar, basically.”
The county will still have to shift some money internally, said Sharon Whitmore, Fulton’s chief financial officer. But the collections are more than $100 million above the scenario that would have barely allowed her to continue to cover Fulton’s obligations.
“It leaves us in a much better position going into 2018 from a cash-flow perspective,” Whitmore said. “Given the circumstances, the tax commissioner put forth a real effort this year. He and his staff stepped up to the challenge.”
The situation exists because tax bills were sent out months later than normal. Shocked by huge increases in their property values in the spring, residents swarmed county meetings and succeeded in getting commissioners to rescind the 2017 values. New notices, and values that mirrored 2016, were instead sent to residents, slowing down the process of setting government tax rates and sending bills. Then, the state Department of Revenue rejected the county’s tax digest, requiring representatives of the county and two school systems to go to court to get an order allowing them to collect taxes.
County leaders hope to avoid a similar situation in the future, and have plans to improve the assessment process next year and in 2019. They will review any properties that have value increases greater than 50 percent, to ensure that the homes they are comparing them to are in fact similar, and that they have the right home characteristics. They are hiring more people to handle customer service complaints from residents, and will do a better job of communicating to residents their options for exemptions and appeals.
An improved website will also give residents more information about their individual assessments.
But, like this year’s first batch of assessments, values will likely be higher. And this time, in order to comply with state law, most residents will have to pay that increase.
“Home prices have gone up,” Anderson said. “You can’t really with any intellectual honesty say, ‘There should be no increase in the value of my home.’”