Owners in Lee to get property notices

LEESBURG, Ga. -- Lee County property owners -- all 13,434 of them -- can expect a piece of mail from the Lee County Board of Assessors' office in the next couple of days.

Chief Appraiser Joe Wright and his staff mailed out property assessment notices today to owners of "all taxable real property" in the county, including residential, commercial, industrial and agricultural. And while the assessment notices and estimated taxes on each piece of property are something of a foregone conclusion given a three-year moratorium enacted by the state Legislature in 2009 that froze property values, Wright knows the mailing of the assessment notices marks the end of the calm before the storm for his five-person office.

"The tools are in place for property owners to see the tax value of their property," Wright said Wednesday. "We offer all of our records online. But when we send out notices, the volume of calls we get here increases dramatically.

"In the past, property owners received an assessment notice only if they filed a request or there was a change on their property. But the Legislature sent down one of those unfunded mandates requiring that notices be sent to all property owners so that our offices are more transparent."

That could pose a potential problem in an economy that has forced officials to cut budgets to the bone. Wright said the county pays "$27 a pop" for every assessment appeal that is heard by the grand jury-appointed Board of Equalization. Some government agencies in the northern part of the state have reported being "inundated" this week with complaints and requests for appeals since they followed the General Assembly's requirement that notices be sent to all property owners.

"The appeals process, that's the unknown factor," Wright said. "Even though there has been a moratorium in place that has frozen property values for the past three years, there are still people who will question the assessment."

If, as statistics show, as many as 10 percent of property owners file for an appeal hearing with the Board of Equalization, the Board of Assessors' budget could take a damaging hit.

"We try to anticipate the number of appeals that might come in and set our budget based on that," said Steve Ruckel, a member of the three-member, County Commission-appointed Board of Assessors.

"And while Joe and the folks in his office do an excellent job of assessing value, it's always a guessing game.

"We don't know how citizens will react (to their property assessment). We can only do our job, which is to be fair and equitable in assessing fair market value of each piece of property in the county."

Wright, who is highly thought of throughout the state, certainly has the pedigree to handle the tough assignment. He started his career as a field appraiser with the Tift County Tax Assessors' office in 1996. After two years in Tifton, he took a similar position in Berrien County before being named chief appraiser in Turner County in 2002.

He was recruited and hired by the state Department of Revenue to cover a 24-county territory in Southwest Georgia before being hired by Lee County as its chief appraiser in 2008.

"I loved my job with the state, but I love my job with Lee County even more," Wright said. "It's nice to be able to come home to my family and sleep in my own bed every night.

"And while I'm probably not the most popular guy in town, I understand that people have misconceptions about what we do in this office. Everything we do is mandated by the state Legislature. We have to follow their mandates to remain in compliance with state law."

Wright said one of the primary complaints property owners currently have with his job has to do with the impact of the down economy on local property values.

"They see the value of their property coming down, and they feel the assessment (and, thus, taxes) should come down as well," he said.

"But our assessments have to stay within 10 percent of fair market value. We're at about 5 percent (below FMV) now, because the values have actually come down to meet the assessed values.

"There's a good possibility that, since the Legislature voted down legislation (during the 2011 session) that would have kept the moratorium in place, we may do a revaluation in 2012. I believe we would handle that through our office."

Once his Friday mailing goes out to the county, Wright and his staff can only wait and see how many property owners appeal the assessments based on property value, uniformity, denial of exemption or taxability. For each appeal, he'll have to present a case before the equalization board to back up the assessment.

"We're as prepared as we can be," Wright said. "Hopefully, we'll be able to clear up some of the misconceptions property owners have about what we do in this office and how we arrived at their assessment before it gets to an appeal.

"I understand this is a very important issue, and property owners can rest assured that they will be treated fairly and uniformly by this office."

Property owners have 45 days from the time they receive their assessment notice to file an appeal.