Columbus Council approved a motion Tuesday to seek guidance from state officials about what council can do to address tax assessments that have jumped by as much as 1,000 percent.
Councilors made the decision with an unanimous vote after nearly three hours of intense discussion over the issue. Councilor Glenn Davis made the motion despite legal counsel from City Attorney Clifton Fay, who told councilors that they had very limited authority in the tax assessment process.
The discussion erupted after Muscogee County Assistant Chief Appraiser John Williams gave council an update on local appeals and encouraged taxpayers to continue with the process.
In the audience were property owners, many from the Midland area, who cheered and clapped as some councilors made their arguments. Some spoke out against the tax assessments later during the public agenda.
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Councilor Walker Garrett was the first to bring up the question of council’s authority. He said drastic increases in property assessments should have been caught ahead of time and taxpayers are angry.
“... I’m more interested in how we fix this than what the status is of tax appeals, and what are our legal options as far as getting this basically sent back to the Department of Revenue or possibly keeping things at 2016 levels,” he said. “People are furious. ... They’re mad at us and we need to figure out a way to fix this at this point.”
Fay said there wasn’t much council could do.
“There are state laws that set up appeals to go to the Board of Tax of Assessors, which is an arm of the state,” Fay said. “One of the statutes that does give this council some authority only comes into play if the State Revenue commissioner disapproves the local county digest.”
Fay read state law that says a county whose digest has not been approved by the state commissioner can petition the county Superior Court for authorization to collect taxes. He said laws only could be changed through the General Assembly.
Last week, Muscogee County Tax Commissioner Lula Huff said she couldn’t meet the Sept. 1 deadline required for submitting the tax digest to the Georgia Department of Revenue, and she planned to request an extension for the first time in 20 years. Still, she expected to issue tax bills by an Oct. 1 deadline.
Fay said people have referred to a case in Fulton County where commissioners recently froze all county assessments at the previous year’s values.
“Well, they’re using an 1881 local act passed by the General Assembly to do that,” he said. “... That is local legislation from 1881 that applies only to Fulton County.
“... This council does not have that authority,” he said. “And I want to make that real clear. Our charter sets up a Board of Tax Assessors as an independent body and all state laws on appeals apply. ... Folks out there who are unhappy with their values should file an appeal or consult an attorney about filing an appeal, that’s the way the process works.”
But Davis said its an unprecedented situation and the normal course of events is insufficient. He said people no longer have confidence in the process, and he questioned the accuracy of information put into the computers and comparables being used to assess properties.
After two amendments, his motion called for letters to be sent to the attorney general, state revenue commissioner and the chief judge of the Chattahoochee Valley Circuit requesting advice.
Later in the discussion, Councilor Gary Allen asked Fay to look into the possibility of reducing the millage rate to give taxpayers some relief. Councilors Judy Thomas, Skip Henderson, Jerry “Pops” Barnes, Evelyn “Mimi” Woodson and Bruce Huff also expressed frustration about the situation.
Thomas asked City Manager Isaiah Hugley to take note for next year’s state legislative agenda.
“Please make sure we have a discussion on this issue if the Legislature is the place that can change this,” she said. “The General Assembly, at this point, is no use to us for relief for the 2017 budget. If we were to go to our representatives at this point, they couldn’t do anything until the General Assembly convenes in January.”
Garrett, along with Thomas, said councilors should have been notified of the significant tax increases before notices went out June 30.
Williams said a contract for the software conversion project, which was done in conjunction with the countywide reassessment, was approved by council in November 2014. He said he has made several presentations to council since then with information about the percentage of property adjustments.
“We didn’t know individual property values, nor would I discuss individual assessments on a public forum,” he said. “It’s not fair to the taxpayers, it’s not fair to us. I would not do that. It’s just something done in the appeals process.
“I know you’re tired of hearing about the appeals process,” he said. “But that is the resolution to individual concerns about property value increase or decreases.”
Mayor Teresa Tomlinson said councilors were well aware that some property assessments were going up.
“When you’re looking for solutions, as we are, the first thing you have to do is determine what factually to be frustrated about, and then hone your efforts toward those things to be frustrated about and correct them,” she said.
She said Williams appeared before council on June 13, requesting an extension because assessments were so great and the Tax Assessors Office was having problems getting them out.
“So this didn’t happen in closed session,” she said. “It happened on TV, and it happened online. So we knew, we just didn’t appreciate the personal affect to us.”
When Williams used the example of a property that had gone up 250 percent, Garrett asked how that was possible if properties are assessed every three years.
Williams said some are properties that are under Homestead Exemption, and adjustments hadn’t be done in quite some time. He said he joined the Tax Assessors Office two years ago, and found limited resources.
“... They’re staffed at the same level that they were staffed when consolidation took place,” he said. “So whether or not, they should, or they didn’t, or did, I know that every year we present our digest and it’s approved by the Department of Review.”
Williams said the state audits digests from the previous year, comparing property assessments to the price for which they were later sold. In 2016, the Muscogee County digest was found to be well within the guidelines, he said.
As for this year, Williams said 1,539 appeals had been processed as of Monday, which represents 2.21 percent of the taxable property. The assessed “value in dispute” from the appeals is 0.46 percent of the total taxable digest.
“We expect that to increase, obviously, and we are working daily, hourly, by the minute to not only talk to the people who come in to see us to answer their questions, and some of which are here today... but we’re also working the appeals. So it’s two-fold.”
He said the percentages are way below an 8 percent threshold that would put the digest in jeopardy.
Georgia law prohibits the State Revenue Commissioner from approving 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. Williams said the “value of dispute” is the difference between the 2017 assessment value and either the 2016 assessment value or the owner’s stated value on the appeal form.
He said 244 appeals had been reviewed as of Monday, which is about 16 percent of the appeals filed. So far, 122 appeals have been recommended for reduction, 60 were recommended no change, and 62 were designated for review by division managers.