Since its inception in 1982, Columbus’ property tax assessment freeze has been controversial.
It’s been hailed as the protector of homeowners, shielding them from runaway property taxes and preventing the elderly from being taxed out of their homes.
It’s been excoriated as a bane to newcomers and people who decide to move and to owners of unprotected property -- an oppressor that lays the burden of financing the city unequally on their shoulders.
It has been the subject of a public referendum to repeal it that pitted neighbor against neighbor.
And it was the target of a lawsuit that went all the way to the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court, though it couldn’t get in the door.
If the past is prologue, the time is about right for the freeze to become an issue again. Born in the early 1980s, it was challenged at the ballot box in the early 1990s and in the courts in the early 2000s.
Now, in the early 2010s, a subcommittee of the city Charter Review Commission has floated a trial balloon tied to a “basic service fee” for homeowners not paying much, if anything, in property taxes. The heat and noise is likely to ramp up again.
For all the fanfare it subsequently created, the freeze came to life relatively quietly. There were petitions and hearings and speeches on both sides of the issue leading up to Election Day 1982. But there was little doubt it would pass, according to news accounts of the day.
In the years leading up to its passage, inflation was in double digits and property values were rising along with prices. As property values rose, property taxes went with them, as did taxpayer resentment. That, combined with the low-grade contempt for government ushered in by the Carter-to-Reagan era, created a favorable environment for the freeze.
In 1981, Columbus Councilor Jack Land crafted an amendment to the city charter that would freeze property tax assessments. In order for the amendment to become law, the council would have to recommend it to the legislative delegation, the General Assembly would have to approve it and the public would have to pass it in a referendum.
They did, by a vote of 19,500 to 7,140, but to little fanfare.
The Columbus Ledger, which had earlier endorsed the referendum in two paragraphs buried in a larger endorsement editorial, reported the passage on page A-9, bottom of the page. (The front page that day was taken up with news of George Wallace returning to the Alabama governor’s mansion.)
Supporters of the freeze touted it as a way to hold down the runaway city budget, which had topped $50 million. But since the freeze went into effect, the Consolidated Government’s budget has grown to about $280 million.
Soon, the inequities in taxation began to grow, as did the amount of money the freeze was costing the Consolidated Government. Those were less noticeable at first because there was little difference in frozen property assessments and those houses that changed hands and were reassessed only a few years after the freeze.
But by the 1990s, the inequities and the strain on city government became enough to spark a drive to repeal the freeze. Then-Mayor Frank Martin and some prominent business leaders formed the Fair Tax Committee, which managed to get a referendum on the November 1991 ballot that would repeal the freeze, if voters would back it.
In opposition, attorney Vince McCauley and others formed the Columbus Better Government Association to fight to preserve the freeze.
It wasn’t close. The original freeze legislation had been passed with a vote of 73 percent to 27 percent. The referendum to repeal it failed with 81 percent opposed to 19 percent for.
With public support for the freeze apparently growing, opponents turned to the courts.
Twenty-one private citizens joined the Columbus-Muscogee Tax Equalization Foundation as plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the Consolidated Government and several entities within it.
In June 2002, opponents won the closest thing to a victory they had (or have) seen when Sumter Superior Court Judge George Peagle Jr. ruled the property tax assessment freeze unconstitutional. Less than a year later, in March 2003, the Georgia Supreme Court overturned Peagles’ ruling, setting the stage for an appeal of that ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.
One group petitioned the courts to declare it unconstitutional and managed to get a judge to do just that. But the Georgia Supreme Court overturned the ruling and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of that decision. In October of that year, the high court sent word that it would not hear the appeal, effectively killing the lawsuit.
So the freeze stands.