Muscogee County Tax Commissioner Lula Huff won’t meet the Sept. 1 deadline required for submitting the tax digest to the Georgia Department of Revenue this year, she said in a recent interview with the Ledger-Enquirer.
The setback is due to the Muscogee County Tax Assessor’s conversion to new software and the reassessment of about 70,000 parcels, Huff said. That pushed the deadline for property tax assessment appeals from Aug. 1 to Aug. 14.
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To file for the extension, Huff will have to get a letter from the Board of Tax Assessors, and maybe even Columbus Council, to substantiate the request, she said. It’s the first time she will file for an extension in 20 years.
“The last day for appeals is 8/14,” she wrote in an email. “I have to wait on the tax assessors to give me the books, which I do not anticipate it will be on 8/15 and I have preparation that has to be done before it is delivered.
“An extension can be granted for 30 days,” she added. “I anticipate less than that. ... I have spoken with the Department of Revenue and I do not foresee a problem.”
The complication is just the latest associated with the Tax Assessor’s conversion to new software, while at the same time conducting a countywide reassessment of properties. As a result of the two projects, the Tax Assessor’s Office, under the management of Chief Appraiser Betty Middleton, had to delay the mailing of tax notices by about 30 days.
Normally, tax notices would have been mailed June 1 and tax bills Aug. 1, with first and final installments due Oct. 1 and Dec 1.
This year, tax notices were issued June 30. Tax bills won’t be mailed until Oct. 1. There will only be one required installment this year, which will be due on Dec. 1. Property owners still going through the appeal process on Dec. 1 will be required to pay 85 percent, officials said. The money will be refunded if the appeal is granted.
Huff said her office usually receives books from the assessor in June. She is then required to submit the digest to the Department of Revenue by Sept. 1. Tax bills can’t be mailed until she receives approval from the DOR. Once approved, she is required to bill taxpayers, allowing them 60 days to make payment.
“The problem now is that the 45 days notice that the Tax Assessor sent out, pushed the time back to Aug. 14 for appeals,” she explained. “In order to have an Oct. 1 deadline, it had to be Aug. 1. ... I don’t know how long after that it’s going to take for the tax assessors to finish their process before I get the books. And then I have to do my preparation on the books. So there’s no way I can make a Sept. 1 deadline.”
Huff said her staff will double their efforts to mail out tax bills by Oct. 1.
“My folks are going to work overtime,” she said. “... We’re going to work Saturday, we’re going to work Sunday, we’re going to do whatever it takes to have those bills on the street on Oct. 1.”
There’s also the issue of appeals, which have skyrocketed this year due to significant increases in some property tax assessment.
Under Georgia code, the State Revenue Commissioner “shall not approve a digest …when 8 percent or more of the assessed value in dispute is on appeal AND 8 percent or more of the number of properties is on appeal,” according to information provided by City Attorney Clifton Fay.
The Muscogee digest approval would be jeopardized if the number of appeals reaches 5,548 parcels, according to Huff’s email, but she said she doesn’t think that will happen.
“As of today, July 18, 845 appeals have been received and are being processed by the Tax Assessors,” the email reads. “This represents 1.2 percent of the total digest. That averages about 47 appeals per day for 18 days since the appeals were mailed. Based on this average, approximately 2,113 appeals would be received during the 45 day appeal period, versus the threshold of 5,548.”
But, according to Fay, there is a two-part standard that must be met before any county’s digest is in jeopardy, involving a combination of the assessed value and the number of properties on appeal.
“In addition, any appeal which is resolved before the digest is submitted to the State Revenue Commissioner would not count toward the ‘8 percent’ threshold,” he wrote in an email.
Reynolds Bickerstaff, chief Xperience officer for Bickerstaff Parham Real Estate, said it’s a complicated situation that won’t be easily resolved. He said tax officials should consider using the assessed values from 2016 this year, which would give them more time to make sure tax assessments are correct in 2018.
“Any time you’re rolling out something like this, you never have enough time, and you could always use more time to execute it,” he said. “And I think a lot of folks have underestimated the number of appeals and the staff’s ability to review these appeals as they come in.
“Even if we don’t cross the threshold, gosh, if we get 2,000, 3,000, 4,000 appeals, that’s still a lot to process,” he said. “... I just think there’s going to be a lot of work ahead.”
Bickerstaff also raised questions about the impact delays will have on the city and Muscogee County School District, which rely on the digest for revenue. The city and school district receive 40 and 60 percent of the taxes, respectively.
“I’m concerned that the general public doesn’t understand what’s at risk here with our tax payments,” he said. “... Taxpayers do not have to make a payment until Dec. 1, when normally 60 percent of our bill would’ve been paid on Oct. 1. That’s 60 days the school board and the city will have to forgo revenue from property tax assessments.”