Tax group to discuss litigation

ALBANY -- Leaders of a local taxpayer advocacy group say they will meet Thursday to try and drum up support throughout the community to appeal what they contend to be flawed property tax assessments and give an update on litigation involving a 2007 revaluation.

The Dougherty County Taxpayer's Association is trying to rally enough support to force the Dougherty County Tax Assessors to do what they contend is the right thing and re-evaluate all the property in Dougherty County.

DOCOTA Chairman Richard Thomas says that market values for real estate have constantly been dropping as the recession has progressed -- something that property tax assessments don't reflect.

In a letter to DOCOTA members, Thomas and the group's steering committee are asking concerned citizens to show up for their meeting at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Merry Acres Conference Center on Dawson Road.

"Every action we have taken since our inception in 2006 is directed toward honesty and accountability in government, and reducing your taxes, whether by nullifying the illegal 2007 revaluation, or to stop the sheer waste of money in wasteful projects and government corruption," the letter states.

To that end, Thomas is urging property owners in Dougherty County to file appeals with the Board of Assessors with the ultimate goal of flooding their office with requests to the point that a "global" revaluation of property will be undertaken.

Three years ago, assessors undertook a revaluation of property within the county after their annual Sales Ratio Study showed that they were taxing property below state mandated percentages, Tax Director Denver Hooten said.

To bring those back in line, the county undertook the revaluation process and reassessed the majority of property within the county lines -- at a cost of roughly $1 million. That boosted the percentage from 34.75 percent to 39.25 percent. Ideally, taxes are assessed at 40 percent of the value of property, but the state gives tax officials a compliance window between 36 and 44 percent.

Currently, the most recent study -- done in 2008 -- has the county teetering again at the low end of the spectrum at 36.9 percent, meaning that property owners are actually being taxed at the very bottom fringe of what the state allows.

While Hooten acknowledged that property tax assessments often can't keep pace with values on the real estate market, assessors are constantly reviewing property and making adjustments.

"Well, every three years is a review year, but we are constantly changing the values on properties," Hooten said. "And while the assessments are sometimes slow to head downward when the market value of the property drops, the reverse is also true... when the value goes up, it takes a while for the assessments to catch up as well."

That could explain why, according to a report filed by the state department of Revenue in 2009, property assessments statewide in 2008 actually increased -- following a trend that began in 2002.

According to data in that report, between 2001 and 2007, property values increased between 6 and 9 percent each year. In 2008, that number dropped to 2.8 percent in what the authors of the report said was attributed to "recent trends in the real estate market."

But at the same time the state says that the property values increased, the tax assessments on those properties steadily declined.

Since 2004, the average level assessment has dropped each year, from 37.97 percent in 2004 to 36.51 percent in 2008.

The local real estate market appears to have avoided a significant downtown, at least in terms of property values.

According to local real estate data from the Multiple Listing Service or MLS, the average total sales price of homes in Dougherty County for one year periods between March 1, 2008, and Feb. 28, 2009, then March 1, 2009, to Feb. 28, 2010, stayed roughly the same at $128,000.

The number of sales during that same period dropped by almost 10 percent.

In Dougherty County, the 2008 tax digest constricted significantly, dropping by $15 million in real and personal property and another $1 million in industrial property, Hooten said. Commercial property stayed flat, she said.

The data from 2009 won't be available until later this year, Hooten said.

"We encourage people who have legitimate concerns and appeals to make those known," Hooten said. "Between those and tax exemptions we want everyone who is legally eligible for a break to receive it. No one needs to pay more in taxes than they are obligated to."

Assessments likely won't be the only topic up for discussion during the meeting, Thomas said.

The Dougherty County Taxpayer's Association will also likely get public input on possible candidates to run against elected county incumbents for both the Dougherty County Commission and the Dougherty County School Board, and will discuss a recall effort for some current members of the board.

In addition to the appeal issue, the DOCOTA letter also states the group's intention to sue the city over its policy of using the Albany-Dougherty Inner City Authority as a conduit to give money to the Albany Civil Rights Institute.

"Additionally, we have concluded that the city of Albany is not only unethically, but illegally using ADICA as a conduit in funding various agencies such as the Civil Rights Institute. To stop this will necessitate a lawsuit. As a preliminary to this lawsuit, we recently served an Open Records request on the city, ADICA and the Civil Rights Institute. We have not been completely satisfied with their response and a number of our requests necessitate our going downtown and examining voluminous records," the letter states.

The city routinely allocates funds through ADICA to benefit the Civil Rights Museum, the Flint RiverQuarium and other entities. The county commission also funds the RiverQuarium in the same fashion.