Revaluation cases still unsettled

ALBANY -- In May 2007, the Dougherty County tax office mailed out revaluation notices on some 38,000 properties in the county. What followed was a public firestorm that has ebbed and flowed over the past two-plus years, but has never been completely settled.

Left hanging in the balance is about 135 pieces of property valued at $54,358,756, the owners of which are waiting for their day in court.

Developer Tim Coley owns or is a partner on 44 of the properties whose value will ultimately be determined in Dougherty County Superior Court. The question Coley and others are asking is, "When?"

"I've tried to get the county's attorneys to discuss where we are in this matter, but they don't want to talk about it," said Joe Dent, a partner in the Watson Spence law firm who is representing Coley and other property owners in their challenge of the value placed on disputed land parcels. "I know there are questions about that lawsuit (filed by the Dougherty Taxpayers Association), but it is my understanding that those issues have been settled.

"I've got a number of reasonable offers that could solve some of these cases; I'm ready to submit appraisals that my clients have commissioned, but everything's been put on hold."

County Attorney Spencer Lee said Tuesday the delay in working the remaining parcels of land through the court system is a matter of waiting for the taxpayer group's lawsuit to make its way through the court system.

"Ironically, the suit filed against the county's Board of Tax Assessors by the taxpayer group involves the same issues that would have been settled in superior court had the cases gone through the prescribed process," Lee said. "They've argued about the uniformity of properties, and that's identical to what is decided once cases like this reach superior court.

"We're getting ready to litigate the uniformity cases once the lawsuit is settled, but we can't even start hearings on land value until the uniformity issue is settled."

Longtime Albany attorney Hilliard Burt brought suit against the county on behalf of county landowners in an attempt to have the revaluation, conducted by Tyler Technologies of Dayton, Ohio, thrown out. More than 5,000 appeals were initially filed, partly as a strategy to keep the county from establishing a tax digest.

State law dictates that a digest cannot be set if 5 percent of the county's properties or 5 percent of its total value has not had an acceptable fair market value established.

When that tactic failed to halt attempts at setting a tax digest, the taxpayer group filed suit against the county on the basis of nonuniformity of property valuation. Challenges to uniformity or value -- or both -- are allowed by state law.

Even though the values of thousands of pieces of property were appealed initially to the Board of Tax Assessors in what officials called at the time a "smooth process," many of them were taken to the next step: an appeal to a grand jury-appointed Board of Equalization. With only one such board in place, the county sought and got appointment of two additional equalization panels to hear the volume of cases.

Through that process, the number of properties has been whittled down to 135.

"And that's not 135 property owners," Lee said. "Actually, around 85 percent of those properties are owned by four or five landowners."

The taxpayer group claimed an initial victory when the county's request for summary judgment in the case was denied. The state Court of Appeals ruled in the county's favor, however, and the Georgia Supreme Court refused to hear the taxpayer group's request for appeal.

The group has since asked the state's high court to reconsider its decision, leaving the case in limbo until a further ruling is made.

Coley, meanwhile, said he is confident his challenges will be upheld in court ... when they are finally heard.

"I truly expect to win every (valuation) that I've challenged," he said Tuesday. "In fact, I believe that the ones I went to the expense to appeal (to Superior Court) will fall in that more-than-15 percent level that requires the county to pay attorneys' fees."

Dent said state law requires counties to pay all attorney fees and other costs for residential properties whose values are ruled to be 85 percent or less than the value set by the county. The same applies for commercial properties whose values are found to be 80 percent or less than the county's value.

"I guess we're really just kind of on hold now while (the taxpayer group's) direct action is resolved," said Dent, who is representing other landowners in addition to Coley. "It's kind of hard to say what the county's plan is right now until we've had discovery, but I think they would benefit from listening to our offers.

"Until there's some movement forward, though, that's a moot point."

Lee said the county would be foolish to take any action until the taxpayer group's suit is settled.

"Theoretically, you'd be looking at resetting a tax digest for 2007, 2008 and 2009 and conducting another reval at more than $1 million (if the taxpayer group won its case)," he said. "So, we have no choice but to wait and then be ready to litigate when we're given the go-ahead.

"All we can do is what the statutes say, which is what we've done all along."

County Tax Director Denver Hooten said she expects the process to "move forward pretty quickly" once the lawsuit is settled.

"When it does, we'll be there with bells on," Dent said.