Opinion: A Sterling tax plan for Fulton homeowners

The anger of Fulton homeowners largely dissipated after county commissioners froze property assessments at 2016 levels. But it’s clear that was a temporary solution that can’t be repeated every year.

Conveniently, there’s an election right now for Fulton’s commission chairman. One candidate has a solid plan to ensure Fulton homeowners don’t see a repeat of what would have happened absent the freeze, with more than half of them facing an increase of at least 20 percent and almost a quarter facing an increase of at least 50 percent.

“Even if 10 percent of those (higher assessments) are wrong, that would mean there were hundreds of thousands that were close to being correct,” says Gabriel Sterling, one of three candidates for chairman. “This freeze really is kicking the can to the next tax year. If we don’t get some protections in place this legislative cycle, we won’t have them in place for this catch-up year Fulton County’s doing” in 2018.

Sterling’s plan is largely modeled after the law for Sandy Springs, where he has served as a councilman since 2011. Assessments for homeowners could only rise by 3 percent or the rate of the Consumer Price Index (CPI), whichever is lower. But unlike in Sandy Springs, the increase would only be from one year to the next, and couldn’t be calculated cumulatively over a period of years.

The cap wouldn’t apply to commercial or rental property, or to homes that have been renovated or expanded in a way that required a permit. But it would help homeowners who simply don’t want to be priced out of their homes because of a red-hot real estate market.

“The amount of money you make is the amount of money you make, for most people,” Sterling said. “That’s why homeowners need protection. That’s especially true for the gentrifying areas of the cities. If you bought a house in 1985 for $40,000, and all of a sudden your assessment goes up to $450,000, there is no way you can adjust your lifestyle to make up for that difference.”

His bottom line: “No one should have to sell their house because they can’t pay their property taxes.”

Many politicians are hesitant to cap property values because — let’s be honest — soaring assessments are a backdoor source of more tax revenue. Some hide behind the rollback, which provides for a cut in the millage rate equal to the average increase in assessments. But that’s insufficient in many cases.

“It’s great on its face,” Sterling said. “But some people got a 5 percent decrease (in their assessments). Some people got a 20 percent increase. And some people got a 100 percent increase. So if the millage-rate rollback is 12 percent, the guy who got a 5 percent decrease gets a huge tax cut. But the guy who got a 100 percent increase, that (12 percent rollback) is not really helping.”

The idea would be to apply this principle to all three parts of a property-tax bill: county taxes, city taxes and school taxes. That’s what truly separates the plan from the status quo. Sterling thinks it would take local legislation at the General Assembly for each municipality involved, and recognizes it could be an uphill battle in some cases. “But after the outrage we had over those property-tax increases,” he said, “we may be able to get that done.”

Giving Sterling a chance to get it done is well worth a vote for him.

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