Yogi Berra could have been describing the current Fulton County Property Tax Assessment fiasco when he said “it’s like deja-vu all over again.” Fulton County has been struggling with property tax assessments since the early 1990’s– and changes to the process and state law have failed to fix a broken system.
Anyone paying attention to politics in the 1990’s will recall the property tax revolt that led to the election of Republican firebrand Mitch Skandalakis as Chairman of the Fulton County Board of Commissioners. Skandalakis’ election coincided with the replacement of the incompetent joint City of Atlanta/Fulton County Board of Assessors (created in 1952) with a full-time Fulton County Board of Assessors. The new full-time board failed to fix the county’s assessment problems and a part-time board was established in December 1998 to better manage the process. Or so we were told.
Fast forward to today and taxpayers are as frustrated as ever by the same problems that led to the property tax revolt decades ago.
Currently, the Fulton County Commission appoints a part-time five member Board of Assessors that hires a Chief Appraiser and oversees the Assessors’ office. The Board of Commissioners appoints the assessors who signed off on the outrageous increases creating the current uproar — yet claim they were unaware of the actions of their own appointees.
Must we remind the County Commissioners who are claiming to have little authority over the Assessors that they set the Assessors’ annual budget? The power of the purse is a powerful tool yet when the Commissioners were asked to approve $700,000 in sole source spending for the Assessors Office in October 2014 the record reflects they asked very few questions.
At the annual budget hearings the commissioners are afforded the chance to ask questions of the office and plans for the coming year. They can also ask for reports from their appointees at any time about the office. If they are to be believed that they were caught by surprise by this year’s increases then it seems they exercise very little oversight of one of the most vital and historically trouble ridden offices in the county.
The county is required by state law to assess property at fair market value. Fulton County has consistently under-assessed and over-assessed values for decades. Fulton County states in the 2017 General Obligation Library Bonds Disclosure Agreement that “the County endeavors to reappraise a portion of the real property located in the County annually so that all real property is reappraised every three years.” This claim should have set off warning bells in the mind of the Fulton County Manager, Dick Anderson, who’s Alpharetta residence had the same assessed value for the years 2011 thru 2016. Anyone following the Fulton County real estate market would know its highly unlikely a home would maintain the same assessed/fair market value for those 6 consecutive years.
In June 2016, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Fulton County residential assessment values had risen a mere 2.6% from the previous year. This should have been a wake-up call for the County Commission that there was a serious problem with the assessment process as prices had been rising steadily over the previous 18 months and surrounding counties were reporting growth in residential assessed values of over 10%.
Along the same lines, a study in 2013 that found property was under-assessed in Fulton County should have also caused alarm since this meant the county was failing to capture the rebounding growth in the property tax digest. Whether the problem is assessing too low or too high, the county just can’t seem to get it right.
Fulton County is dependent upon property taxes for over three fourths of its total revenue so it is startling to hear County Commissioners claim this year’s assessment increases caught them by surprise. You would think they would be closely monitoring the process that generates the bulk of their revenue. Apparently not.
When property tax assessments were delayed by a month in 2016– which delayed the due date for tax bills by a month putting the county, and all the cities and both school boards who rely upon this revenue in a bad spot– it should have prompted a comprehensive management review of the assessors. One can assume the month delay must be a level of performance the Commissioners were willing to tolerate. The delay, along with the fact virtually no residential properties were reassessed in 2016, were not merely warning signs but cause for major alarm.
It was an alarm that went unnoticed, apparently, because everyone has been blindsided by the incompetence that led to property being reassessed 30%, 70% and in some cases 100% or more higher in value over last year!
When the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on the problems with Fulton County assessments back in 2013, former State Rep. Ed Lindsey was interviewed saying he wanted to pass legislation capping property tax assessment increases at 3% a year. This is an idea whose time has come. Fulton County has proven itself incapable of managing the assessment process over the last 25 years. The Legislature has to step in and protect the taxpayers.
It’s encouraging to hear that Senator John Albers – whose own property tax assessment jumped 22% this year — is holding a special meeting of the Georgia Senate State & Local Government Operations Committee on June 19 to discuss the Fulton County Assessments. He is proposing the 3% cap on assessment increases. Until this happens, the only remedy available to Fulton County taxpayers is to appeal their assessments.
Josh Kenyon is a former Fulton County official who operates a legal staffing company in Atlanta.