About 150 property owners gathered into the fellowship hall at the Midland United Methodist Church last week to arm themselves for battle.
Most attended the Thursday meeting, organized by the Midland/Panhandle Homeowners Association, for information on how to appeal property tax assessments. But some property owners said they wanted to go beyond the appeals process, possibly filing a class action lawsuit against Muscogee County tax assessors or soliciting state intervention.
Rafe Massengale, a local appraiser, said he already had 500 signatures on a petition that will go to the Georgia State Revenue Commissioner.
“I want the Department of Revenue to come down here and audit the appraisers and the Board of Tax Assessors and the methodology that they used to estimate these values,” he said in an interview with the Ledger-Enquirer. “I’m saying the values are way overstated, the technology they used is not working, and they need to be held accountable for it.”
Such is the outrage fueling a backlash in the wake of a countywide property revaluation project that has led to unprecedented property tax assessments, some of which jumped by as much as 1,000 percent.
The Board of Tax Assessors reassessed the approximately 70,000 parcels in Muscogee County in conjunction with a software conversion project. Tax notices were issued June 30, and property owners have until Aug. 14 to file an appeal with the Tax Assessors’ Office.
The issue has property owners, Realtors, appraisers, lawyers, and even some Columbus councilors, scrambling to meet the fast-approaching deadline.
Many of those affected are residents in the Midland/Panhandle area who own larger lots. Since the Homestead Exemption only covers up to two acres, tax assessments have increased for many of those property owners.
Others affected are investors with rental properties in areas like South Columbus. Some say they’ll have to increase rents if their assessments aren’t reduced.
Charmaine Crabb, a member the Columbus Board of Realtors, said local agents have been inundated with calls from clients and concerned residents who want help with appeals. On Monday, the organization will hold a special training session to provide Realtors with the information that they need. Councilors and officials from the Tax Assessor’s Office are expected to attend. The meeting will be held 10 a.m. at the Board of Realtors office at 2512 Warm Springs Road.
Crabb said real-estate agents and appraisers have access to software that could help property owners with comparables and support documents for their appeals.
“We want the community to know that Realtors are standing by and they do want to help in this situation,” she said. “... This is a very unique way that we can serve and we’re ready to help people. All they need to do is call their Realtor, or find one on the Internet.”
Bill Ward, president of the Midland/Panhandle Homeowners Association, served as moderator of Thursday’s meeting. After providing information about how to file an appeal with the Tax Assessor’s Office, he mentioned other legal options.
“Once we get through the appeal process, if we don’t have satisfaction that we have a fair assessment of our property, then we have the option of court action,” he said. “We can file an action in Superior Court, and there’s a possibility of class action suit.”
Travis Hargrove, an attorney at the Finley Firm, said tax assessors would determine if a change should be made once the appeal is filed. If property owners are dissatisfied with that decision, they could present their cases to the Board of Equalization.
“The city and assessors may have representation,” Hargrove said, informing the group of what to expect at the hearing. “... The assessors are going to be ready. They’re going to have their comps. You ought to go and find out ahead of time what their comps are.”
Hargrove also recommended taxpayers get a market analysis or independent appraisal to present to tax assessors.
“Trying to do it yourself, you can try, but I think it’s going to carry a lot more weight, because when the assessors first get it, they’re going to evaluate whether a change needs to be made without you going to the Board of Equalization,” he said.
In cases with high property taxes, he recommended hiring an attorney.
“... It doesn’t have to be us, anyone you think is adequate legal counsel,” he said. “It’s going to help you because they’re going to be able to present it in a more concise way and know what needs to be there and what they’re looking for.”
Among those present at the Midland meeting were Councilors Gary Allen and Judy Thomas, who fielded questions from angry property owners who wanted to know who made the decision to purchase the new software from Tyler Technologies and to reassess all the properties after so many years.
Charles Rowe, a Midland resident, said property owners are having to do work that city officials should have done.
“The city should have already provided all of these people with everything that you’re telling them to go look for,” he said. “And I’m wondering if we should be going to a Superior Court judge and asking for an injunction based on the fact that these people haven’t been presented anything beyond a simple letter that doesn’t say anything?”
Thomas said councilors found out about the increased tax assessments when they received their tax notices. They had concerns and requested a presentation from Assistant Chief Appraiser John Williams, who provided information at the last council meeting. She said the discussion will continue at Tuesday’s council meeting.
“... Because no one at this point has answered many, certainly not all, of the questions that council has,” she said. “I can say to you, having sat in that meeting and listened to my fellow councilors, we are as ‘whatever the word is’ as you are because we don’t have that information. And we are going to do whatever we can do to make sure we get that information.”
Thomas said she was told by representatives at the Tax Assessor’s Office that it wasn’t a technical glitch in the computer software, but “garbage in, garbage out” that caused all the problems.
“One of the things that I have been told is that, ‘Well, a lot of this is just bringing the property up to date; it hasn’t been reassessed in a while,’” she said “... And so my question is, ‘What the hell have you been doing for the last 25 years?’” to which she received a loud applause.
Allen encouraged property owners to file appeals and said councilors would do everything they could to help.
“Council is very frustrated with the vendor, Tyler technologies,” he told the Ledger-Enquirer after the meeting. “We’re very frustrated with the work that we’ve been having to do.
“... The public is very upset about this,” he said. “And we’ve been trying to work with the Tax Assessor’s Office to clear up a lot of the confusion that we have and the public has.”