Facing a fast-approaching deadline for property tax appeals to be filed with the Muscogee County Board of Tax Assessors, Columbus Council approved a resolution Tuesday in an attempt to slow down the process.
With a unanimous vote, councilors passed the resolution urging tax assessors to freeze 2017 tax assessments at 2016 levels. The vote occurred during another lengthy debate regarding unprecedented property tax increases that have jumped by as much as 1,000 percent. The deadline for appealing the assessments is Monday.
Councilor Glenn Davis presented the resolution after an update presented by Randy Lomax, an attorney representing the Board of Tax Assessors.
“... Whereas, such increases are a burden on the citizens of Muscogee County, Georgia, and are, in many cases, far in excess of that which is appropriate; and whereas, although an appeals process is provided for citizens to challenge these exponential tax increases, it is neither fair, nor just to place such a burden on the citizens of Columbus, Georgia, as a means to rectify this situation;” the resolution reads.
“... Now, therefore, the Council of Columbus, Georgia, hereby resolves: That it recommends that the Board of Tax Assessors freeze the taxes in Real Property at their 2016 levels so that the Board of Assessors will have sufficient time to re-examine the values established by the third-party vendor they hired to re-value every parcel of property in Columbus, Georgia, and make appropriate adjustments thereto prior to tax notices being sent for Tax Year 2018.”
City Manager Isaiah Hugley said it was his first time hearing of the resolution, and he asked City Finance Director Angelica Alexander to quickly calculate how rolling back the digest would impact the city’s budget.
The city had projected a 2.4 percent increase in property taxes, he said, and freezing the assessments would reduce expected revenue. The school district receives 60 percent of the digest and the city 40 percent.
“And then I think about the fact that in the budget, we had 20 hours for (city employee’s) bonus pay and we went to 40,” he said. “And, so, I just need council members to know the budget impact.”
Councilor Davis said he didn’t need to know the numbers because they are just projections and irrelevant at this point. But Mayor Teresa Tomlinson pushed back.
“It could result in massive layoffs,” she said of the proposed tax freeze. “... We just paid $2 million out in bonuses that we had budgeted a $1 million for. So there’s a possibility that we may have to take out a tax anticipation note just to pay the bonuses that we increased.”
Tomlinson asked city officials to present the numbers, and Councilor Judy Thomas said: “Mayor, we just said we did not want to hear that.”
The mayor responded: “I represent the citizens, too, and I want to hear the numbers ... I don’t know why we want to vote on something without that information. ... We don’t want the citizens to know? We just want to hide this from them?”
Alexander said the budgetary impact would be $1.3 million on the general fund and $2.6 million across all city funds.
Prior to passing the resolution, Councilors Thomas and Walker Garrett asked why members of the Board of Tax Assessors were absent from Tuesday’s meeting, despite requests from some councilors that they be present to answer questions.
“I just have to say to you, Mr. Lomax, that I’m very disappointed this morning,” Thomas said. “... I do not go anywhere in this town since these tax bills hit the mailboxes that somebody doesn’t say something to me about this process. And we have not had an opportunity to talk to, or with, the Board of Tax Assessors.”
Lomax said tax assessors weren’t asked to attend Tuesday’s meeting until Monday morning. He said members didn’t show up because of the late notice and they didn’t know what the topic would be.
Lomax said board chair Chester Randolph had been to several council meetings. He told councilors they are welcome to attend the next Board of Tax Assessors meeting, which will be held Monday morning. But Thomas and Garrett said that meeting wouldn’t be televised for public viewing as a city council meeting would.
Garrett asked if the Board of Tax Assessors would consider the recommendation to freeze assessments at 2016 levels.
“... Of course, absolutely,” Lomax said. “And if there’s a resolution passed today, I will be at Monday’s meeting discussing that with them, no doubt about it.
“ Now, how they react to that, vote on that, address that, I can’t say,” he said. “That’s up to the board.”
Davis said he pursued the resolution after a July 25 council meeting, where City Attorney Clifton Fay told councilors that they had very limited authority in the tax assessment process.
Following that meeting, Georgia Rep. Richard Smith said he spoke to the state’s Revenue Commissioner and learned that the Board of Tax Assessors has the authority to roll back property tax assessments to 2016 levels.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Davis said he was disappointed in a letter Fay sent to the Attorney General, Revenue Commission and Superior Court Judge Gil McBride — at the request of councilors — asking for guidance on what could be done to address the issue.
“I have to admit to you, I wouldn’t have wrote the letter like it was written,” he said. “It’s somewhat disappointing, but it’s out. It was almost as if what we requested, we almost gave the answer to it at the same time.”
Fay said the city attorney must submit an opinion before the Attorney General will even consider the issue. He said McBride recused himself due to laws that regulate the sharing of his opinions, and city attorneys are still waiting to hear back from state officials.
Mayor Teresa Tomlinson raised questions about the impact the resolution could have on about 20,000 property owners whose taxes decreased in 2017.
“So if we go back to the 2016 digest, 20,000 parcels will be increased in value and taxes, and they’ll be unhappy,” she said.
Davis said many of the 20,000 parcels are under the tax freeze and their assessments wouldn’t be affected.
Lomax said he didn’t know the percentage under Homestead Exemption. He also expressed concern about logistical issues which might occur with reverting assessments back to 2016.
“I’m not sure how the Tax Assessor’s Office can convert their 2017 data on the new system, the iasWorld system, back to the 2016 system, which is the Oasis system, and be able to generate a digest that we can get to the tax commissioner,” he said.
Lomax said 4,669 appeals had been filed as of Monday night, representing 6.7 percent of the total parcels in Muscogee County. Of the appeals filed, 1,210 appeals have been received, processed and reviewed by the Tax Assessor’s Office. And of that amount, tax assessors recommended 619 for a reduction in value, 463 for no change, and 128 for administrative or division manager review.
That leaves about 3,459 appeals still to be processed. But Lomax said tax assessors expect to be well below the threshold that would prohibit the state Revenue Commissioner from accepting the tax digest. The threshold is 8 percent of the total number of parcels and 8 percent of total valuation by the time the Tax Commissioner submits tax digest to the Department of Revenue for approval. In Muscogee County, the threshold would be 5,548 parcels.
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. The county must meet the threshold requirement by the time the Tax Commissioner submits the tax digest to the Department of Revenue, which this year will be sometime after Sept. 1.
Lomax said people filing appeals would have to pay either the 2016 taxes or 85 percent of the tax bill — whichever is less — if their cases aren’t resolved by Dec. 1. Tax assessors have expanded hours, serving citizens from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday, to handle the volume of cases.
“... The appeal deadline is not until next Monday,” he said. “However, we are diligently, and expeditiously as possible, processing those appeals and trying to notify the property owners of any adjustments being made so as to alleviate their concerns.”