Judge rules in favor of taxpayer in 2009 property value lawsuit

In a strongly worded opinion issued last month, a Muscogee County Superior Court judge questioned how the Columbus Tax Assessor's office reached a property-value decision on a 91-year-old Green Island Hills home.

Judge William C. Rumer, sided with taxpayer Gunby Garrard in a dispute over the assessed value of Garrard's family home. In his ruling, Rumer stated the Board of Tax Assessors did not operate within state law and failed to take into consideration the economic downturn that has led to the devaluation of property in Columbus and throughout the country.

Garrard challenged the 2009 tax year assessment of $1.925 million to the Board of Equalization, an independent appeal body for property tax disputes. The Board of Equalization sided with Garrard, reducing the assessment to $1.42 million.

That prompted the Board of Tax Assessors to appeal the Board of Equalization's decision to Superior Court, the next avenue of recourse for either side. In the last three years, the Board of Tax Assessors has appealed "10 to 12" Board of Equalization decisions, according to City Attorney Clifton Fay.

Rumer, after a three-day trial in September, took more than two months before ruling. He set the 2009 fair-market value of the house at $1.247 million.

The Board of Tax Assessors violated Georgia code and could not adequately show how it reached the assessed value, Rumer stated in his 24-page opinion.

He cited five ways in which the Board of Tax Assessors failed to comply with the rules and regulations of the Georgia Department of Revenue. The judge's ruling focused on the declining local home values and the comparable sales used by the assessor to reach the fair-market appraisal.

The judge stated:

The board failed to familiarize itself with the overall market trends in this area and the state.

The board failed to rely on economic principles of supply and demand.

The board failed to apply adjustments indicated by market research and verification to comparable properties.

The board failed to adjust comparable properties for physical differences from Garrard's property.

The board failed to develop an estimated value of Garrard's property from the adjusted sales of the comparable properties.

Robert R. Lomax, who represents the Board of Tax Assessors, declined comment on the case, pointing out that the board still is in a 30-day window in which it can appeal Rumer's decision.

"We don't comment on local litigation when there is still time to take action," Lomax said Wednesday.

City Attorney Clifton Fay said he was disappointed with Rumer's ruling, especially the lower assessment.

"We are disappointed the judge didn't use one of the two independent appraisals that valued the house at $1.8 million or higher," Fay said Friday. "We respect the decision."

Asked if the Board of Tax Assessor's would appeal, Fay said "it is unlikely."

Garrard's attorney, Gregory S. Ellington of Hatcher, Stubbs, Land, Hollis & Rothschild LLP, also declined comment on the case.

The Tax Assessor's office has 24 employees and is directed by Chief Appraiser Betty Middleton. There are 13 appraisers on the city payroll, according to the city's Human Resources Department.

Middleton reports to the Board of Tax Assessors, which is appointed by Columbus Council.

Middleton referred all questions about the Rumer decision to Fay. The chief appraiser also declined to discuss details about department operations or how property valuations were determined.

The Garrard case had been an ongoing tax dispute for almost five years.

The house at 6551 Green Island Drive was built in 1921 and has been extensively remodeled over the last nine decades, according to court records. It is currently more than 9,000 square feet.

Gunby Garrard bought the home in 2006 for $800,000 from his parents, Gardiner W. Garrard Jr. and Lenora J. Garrard. The sales price was not used in the assessment because it was a family sale and may not have reflected the true value of the home.

The first assessment after the purchase was issued in 2007 when the home and property were valued at $2.04 million by the assessor's office. After Gunby Garrard purchased the home, he created a condominium association on the property that reduced the house footprint to two acres.

After a review and some legal wrangling, the house and the two acres was assessed at $1.925 million by the Board of Tax Assessors in August 2011. Garrard appealed that assessment to the Board of Equalization and the Board of Tax Assessors stood by its assessment, based on comparable property transactions.

The Board of Tax Assessors chose to take the case to Superior Court after the Board of Equalization lowered the assessed value.

The evidence showed the "sales comparison approach" was the only valuation used by the tax office to determine fair market value, the judge's ruling stated.

"The evidence adduced at trial established that fair market value of residential real estate in the upper end of the Columbus housing market declined significantly between Jan. 1, 2007 and Jan. 1, 2009," Rumer wrote.

In each of last two years, Gunby Garrard has paid more than $23,000 in property tax on his home, according to city tax records.

Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, also an attorney, is familiar with the Rumer ruling. She points out that the impact it may have in Columbus would be different than other parts of the state because of the 1982 Muscogee County property tax freeze. That freeze, if requested by a homeowner, locks the home value and doesn't change if the home's value goes up or down. About 35,000 homes in Columbus are under the freeze.

"If this were to have happened in Fulton County, it would be absolutely devastating," Tomlinson said. "But in Muscogee County because of the property tax freeze people are in their homes can not be re-valued downward."

Tomlinson said she has been aware of issues in the Tax Assessor's office, and has discussed those with Middleton and the Board of Tax Assessors. However, state law limits what an elected official can do on tax-assessment matters. The previous issues have included a backlog of late bills and complicated assessments that had been put aside and not dealt with by the Tax Assessor's office.

"This is just yet another factor that needs to be taken into consideration," Tomlinson said of the ruling. "I am working with the city attorney and the tax assessor's office. I recognize the high level of frustration with the citizens."