Two things are obvious after Tuesday’s meeting of Columbus Council:
(1) Any suspicion that stunningly high assessments were a back-door city scheme to get around the tax freeze was something councilors wanted to squelch ASAP; and
(2) The whole 2017 tax appraisal story, with its public outrage, political ramifications, imminent appeal deadlines and high-dollar fiscal uncertainties, is an increasingly convoluted mess.
In what might be the so-called better part of valor (even if it doesn’t make the long-term issues any simpler), council unanimously approved a resolution urging the Muscogee County Board of Tax Assessors to freeze this year’s tax assessments at last year’s levels.
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The impetus for this resolution, of course, is an unprecedented spate of tax increases, some of them as high as tenfold, that recently hit local property owners. The resolution presented by Councilor Glenn Davis rightly notes that some of these increases “are a burden on the citizens … and are, in many cases, far in excess of that which is appropriate.”
With a Monday deadline for filing appeals, a Sept. 1 deadline for the Muscogee Tax Commissioner to submit the tax digest to the state and a Dec. 1 deadline for people with unresolved appeals to pay either their 2016 taxes or 85 percent of this year’s while they wait for a decision, this process is nothing short of frantic.
After state Rep. Richard Smith, R-Columbus, confirmed with the Georgia Department of Revenue that the Board of Tax Assessors is indeed empowered to roll back the assessments to 2016 levels, it became likely that the city governing body would propose a “freeze” of another kind, in this case a short-term rather than a permanent one.
It’s probably the right course, which is by no means the same as saying it’s problem-free.
For one thing, there’s a question of technical compatibility between this year’s new and last year’s old tax assessment data systems that could make conversion difficult or impossible.
For another, as Mayor Teresa Tomlinson noted, even a successful reversion to 2016 tax levels would be a disservice to many taxpayers who had been notified their taxes would decrease this year.
For yet another, and probably the most significant, there’s the effect of a rollback on city revenues and the budget adjustments that might be necessary as a result. City Finance Director Angelica Alexander estimated the impact at $1.3 million on the general fund and $2.6 million overall; Tomlinson said the city might have to take out a “tax anticipation note” to cover some $2 million in bonuses that have already been budgeted.
So putting adjustments on hold for a year to let the assessors, in the words of the resolution, “have sufficient time to re-examine the values established by the third-party vendor they hired to re-value every parcel of property” would not simply maintain the status quo, especially for the city.
But until the board gives an answer, it’s all hypothetical anyway.