Doco tax assessments mailed

ALBANY, Ga. -- More than 35,000 tax assessment notices were mailed to property owners in Dougherty County this week in compliance with Senate Bill 346, and for most property owners it should be good news.

Senate Bill 346 requires, among other things, that tax departments in each county mail assessment notices to each property owner in the county each year, regardless of whether there has been any change in value.

But since that same bill requires counties' boards of assessors to factor comparable home sales values into each assessment, many area homeowners will see the base assessed values of their homes either stay the same or drop, Dougherty Tax Director Denver Hooten said.

"Unless there is substantial construction or additions, those would be the only ones to go up," Hooten said.

That base value is what is used to help calculate how much property taxes a person owes on any given piece of property. In simple terms, the higher the value of the property, generally, the higher the tax bill.

But, before SB 346 went into effect, property was assessed based on fair market value only. Comparable sales data, which included information from foreclosures and bank short sales, weren't factored in.

But when the housing bubble burst around 2008, many people in communities around the state were paying property taxes based on a home value that was, in many cases, thousands of dollars more than what they could sell it for.

Fast forward to the 2011 General Assembly session, and lawmakers revamped the property tax laws and required local boards of assessors to consider the sales values when assessing properties.

Notices that were mailed out this week include the current year's assessed value of the property, the previous year's value and the estimated tax that the homeowner would likely have to pay when actual bills are sent out in November.

Also changed is the appeals process, which is spelled out on the notice itself. Every property owner has the right to appeal the assessment if he or she feels it's inaccurate, but the appeal has to be filed by July 1, Hooten said.

These appeals have been flowing into local county offices around the state at a record rate. In Gwinnett County, officials have already seen a record number of appeals filed with more than two months left before the deadline.

Those wishing to appeal have three options, according to the form.

They can appeal to the county board of equalization, which is appointed by members of a grand jury, and if they disagree with the board's findings, they can appeal that decision to Superior Court.

Property owners who want to appeal can also ask for arbitration. In this process, the arbitrator's ruling is binding, and there is no appeal to Superior Court.

Finally, for those properties whose fair market value is $1 million or more, a hearing officer appointed by the Georgia Department of Revenue can be asked to review the assessment. The hearing officer's determination can be appealed to Superior Court.

Hooten said she believes the county is prepared and expecting to handle a higher-than-normal number of appeals.

"The mere fact that you're notifying 100 percent of taxable properties ... people who have not received assessment notices in the past ... this could sit right in front of them and perhaps they think that their house isn't worth that now," Hooten said. "There will be a lot just because people haven't been receiving the notices and haven't addressed it."

While the notices will likely be good news to property owners, they could have a significant impact on local government.

If the value of a parcel is reduced, ultimately the amount of tax revenue which is generated by that parcel is reduced as well, which means less money to support the budgets of local government.

In urban Dekalb County, where there were a high number of foreclosures and short sales and the new assessed values of homes are drastically less than their fair market values, the tax digest -- the total list of taxable real and commercial property -- shrank by more than $3 billion.

When tax digests shrink, local governments have few options to balance their budgets: cut services or raise the tax rates.