Fulton County Attorney Patrise Perkins-Hooker will find herself back in court to defend a Fulton County decision to freeze most 2017 residential property values at 2016 levels, months after receiving a temporary collection order from a local judge. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM AJC FILE PHOTO

Fulton County will go to court to defend property value freezes

Fulton County leaders will go to court to defend their decision to keep 2017 residential property values at 2016 levels, county attorney Patrise Perkins-Hooker said Tuesday.

The escalation of the county’s ongoing property tax issue comes after the state Department of Revenue rejected the county’s tax digest for a second time.

What that means for taxpayers is unknown. For now, nothing will change — property taxes were due earlier this month and most have been paid.

But if a judge decides the county did not have the legal authority to freeze some 2017 property values at the lower 2016 levels, residents could be faced with double tax bills to make up the difference.

VIDEOPrevious coverage of this issue

In a presentation to Fulton County commissioners Wednesday, the county manager and tax assessor promised full compliance with state law, more transparency and accountability in the process.

With half of the county’s nearly 320,000 parcels gaining at least 20 percent in value in the original 2017 assessment, and nearly 25 percent seeing value increases of 50 percent or more, residents who complained about large jumps that they said would mean higher taxes would likely face that sticker shock once again.

In November, Fulton County won a temporary collection order from a judge, allowing the tax commissioner to collect taxes on the altered values while the dispute with the state continued.

The state doesn’t often reject county tax digests — the last time it did was in Wayne County, in 2014 — and when it does, the county can usually make fixes in order to obtain an approval on the second pass, said Burt Manning, the former chief appraiser for Fulton County. Manning and others said they weren’t aware of any rejection that had gone to court, beyond the request for a temporary collection order.

“This may be uncharted territory for Georgia,” he said.

William Gaston, a spokesperson for the Department of Revenue, declined to comment on the rejection and would not say whether the situation with another county had ever advanced to this point. But Perkins-Hooker said it had never happened before, and Kevin Payne, president of the Georgia Association of Tax Officials and the Floyd County tax commissioner, said he had not seen it, either.

A rejection is “extremely rare and normally only happens due to a technical error,” Payne said in an email. “Those can typically be corrected fairly quickly and easily. Fulton County’s issue is very specific to this one situation and I have never seen that scenario before.”

In changing the original values, sent last spring, commissioners cited an 1881 law that they said gave them “the power to correct any errors in the tax digest.”

That’s what the Department of Revenue takes issue with. Perkins-Hooker said representatives there told her they did not think they had the legal authority to approve the move, or the digest that came out if it.

Rep. Beth Beskin, R-Atlanta, said she was trying to introduce legislation that would allow for the county’s reprieve, but conversations with lawyers have “led me to believe there’s not a solution.”

Bills have been introduced in some parts of the county that would cap the amount of property tax that residents would be required to pay in future years, but that wouldn’t offer any help with this year’s taxes, or last year’s.

Because so much of the state’s property tax laws are written into Georgia’s constitution, legislators are largely hamstrung in their attempts to make changes to the way values are assessed, said Clint Mueller, the legislative director for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia.

“There are not a lot of good answers for the current situation,” he said. “It’s pretty unique, what they’re dealing with.”

Robb Pitts, the new chairman of the Fulton County Commission, said the county is working to improve its assessment process, so this issue will not repeat itself.

“We don’t really have a choice at this point,” Pitts said of going to court to defend the move. “It was a novel and creative approach, but we’re moving forward with changes in the process to positively address the issue of fair and uniform appraisals going forward.”

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