When Muscogee County tax officials presented Columbus Council with plans for a countywide reassessment three years ago, there was no indication that the project would mushroom into a political firestorm.
On Sept. 9, 2014, attorney Randy Lomax appeared before council representing both the Muscogee County Tax Commissioner and the Tax Assessor’s Office. He explained the responsibilities of each office and stressed the city’s reliance on assessments for the imposition of property taxes.
“He further shared that the Tax Commissioner and Tax Assessor’s Offices are operating with a software and hardware system that was installed in 1986,” according to minutes provided by the city. “... He recommended upgrading to the current version of software (known) as IASWorld Software that is serviced and produced by Tyler Technologies. As part of this process, he spoke of conducting a countywide reviewing of all parcels.”
Following Lomax’s speech, Tax Commissioner Lula Huff and Chief Tax Appraiser Betty Middleton emphasized the advantages of upgrading the system, pointing out the potential for online payments, reducing waiting times and cost savings. Pam Hodge, the city’s Finance Director at the time, told council the IASWorld upgrade would cost about $2.8 million and the reappraisal project another $1.7 million, for a total of $4.5 million. Annual maintenance would cost $184,560.
Councilors then passed a motion to hold a Council Consent Agenda/Work session to further explore the issue. And then on Sept. 23, 2014, they approved a resolution for the countywide reassessment and software conversion with a unanimous vote.
Councilors who voted for the project were Gary Allen, Mike Baker, Jerry “Pops” Barnes, Glenn Davis, Skip Henderson, Judy Thomas, Evelyn “Mimi” Woodson and Mayor Pro-Tem Evelyn Turner-Pugh. Councilors Bruce Huff and the late Charles E. McDaniel Jr. were absent. Councilor Walker Garrett, who later replaced McDaniel, was not yet elected to council.
Now three years later, property owners are in an uproar over exorbitant tax assessment increases, which have some elected officials pointing fingers over who knew what and when.
At a July 25 Columbus Council meeting, Councilors Garrett, Thomas and Davis chided the Tax Assessors Office for not notifying council sooner about the dramatic tax increases. A few days earlier, Thomas had told a group of Midland property owners that she didn’t become aware until receiving her tax bill at the end of June. She made similar comments at Tuesday’s meeting.
“Just to clarify, I think what Councilor Thomas was talking about was that council should’ve been notified before assessments went out that jacked up people’s prices 1,000 percent,” said Garrett, backing her up. “... I think the whole issue is that council was not approached with how much these assessments went up.
“... We should have caught this on the front end,” he said. “This should have been caught before this ever happened.”
Williams said — and Mayor Teresa Tomlinson reiterated — that councilors approved the countywide assessment in 2014 and were notified of the spike in valuations in subsequent meetings.
Following Tuesday’s meeting, the mayor provided the Ledger-Enquirer with documents from meetings as early as Sept. 22, 2015, in which Deputy Chief Appraiser John Williams informed council of the percentage adjustments being made to property assessments. In June, and again Tuesday, he told council the percentage of properties with increases had reached 46 percent.
“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.”
The Mayor said, “... You’re correct, we did not know if Mr. Smith’s was going to be raised 250 percent or who was going to be mad...But we knew and were apprised along the way that this was being done and what the percentages of adjustments were like.”
In an interview with the Ledger-Enquirer, Thomas said councilors were told in 2014 that they could expect more money from property taxes because the system would find properties that had dropped off the tax roll. And then tax officials came to them in June of this year saying they’re running behind, and needed to delay tax notices.
“What I mean when I say that we did not know this, we did not know of the magnitude of what was going to happen and the number of taxpayers that were going to be affected and the amount,” she said. “I still do not know how much money this is supposed to bring in. I don’t recall anyone telling us this is going to bring in $5 million more dollars or $25 million more dollars.
“What I was concerned about and still am concerned about is that surely someone in the Tax Assessor’s Office, as these assessments were being finalized, saw that there were a lot of people that were going to have increases in their taxes and somebody should’ve and could’ve said to council, ‘This is going to be tremendously more than you have ever seen before.’ And I contend that they did not do that.”
When asked about the email and statements notifying councilors of a projected increase in the digest, Thomas said, “Those are the kinds of things that they tell us every year. We always estimate the amount of money that we are going to get from the digest for budget purposes. We estimate it low, and it always comes in somewhat higher than that.
“I think a lot of this is semantics,” Thomas said. “I think the mayor is trying to find a way to justify some of this and I can’t do that. The magnitude of the outcome of this countywide assessment was not made clear to me. It may have been clear to everybody else in that chamber, but it was not clear to me.”
And why weren’t properties reviewed more aggressively in the past?
In an interview with the Ledger-Enquirer, Williams said the last countywide reassessment was conducted in the late 1980s. Regulation requires that every property be reviewed every three years, and the county has been reviewing one-third of its properties annually.
“When you review a file, a lot of people think that you go out and visit and look at a property,” he said. “You can review a property by looking it up on a computer and sitting at your desk. So I say ‘review,’ and emphasize that word, because it doesn’t mean that every property is going to be physically looked at in the field. The property just has to be reviewed.”
Williams said that doesn’t mean properties have been under-assessed the past 30 years. He said 60 percent of residential properties are under Homestead Exemption and their assessments for taxation are frozen.
“So let’s just say we didn’t assess it in the last several years, even if we had, their assessments would not have gone up or down because it’s frozen,” he said. So assessors focused more on commercial, investment and non-Homestead properties, he said.
“Every county deals with limited resources and limited manpower, and so sometimes you end up doing what’s required, and you don’t have any more resources to direct to the properties that should have been assessed that year,” he said. “If one-third is being reviewed every year, and two-thirds aren’t, those two-thirds, their assessments just get carried forward.”
Tomlinson said it’s a very volatile situation and people are upset. But she believes misinformation is helping to fuel the fire.
“There are two things that you could do to your citizens that are the most powerful and emotional things that a government can do,” she said. “One, of course, is imprisonment — that goes straight to our civic and social order. And the other is taxes, which goes straight to our social and civic order.
“And so when you have a circumstance of some folks having a two-, three-, four-fold increase in their taxes, it’s going to cause alarm, extreme anger, extreme frustration, protests,” she said. “Elected officials, of course, are very unsettled by that kind of very broad response from the citizenry, because it’s our job to make sure that the day-to-day civic runnings of the city are moderated and you don’t have this type of outrage.”
Tomlinson said the city has provided additional resources to help with the high volume of cases, and the Board of Tax Assessors is meeting Monday to consider expanding hours. Taxpayers appealing their assessments now will be able to pay the amount they paid last year or 85 percent of the 2017 assessment if their cases aren’t resolved by Dec. 1. She said about half of the appeals reviewed have already been adjusted downward.
“And, again, we knew — including the public and the council and the media because of prior presentations —that the appeals process was always going to be of much higher magnitude this year in a year of a countywide reassessment,” she said. “It’s in the documents of the proposal that was made to council. It is in the over eight PowerPoints that were presented to council over a three-year period. It’s in the minutes. It’s in the videos.”