ALBANY, Ga. -- It's what Dougherty County Tax Director Denver Hooten calls a "Wow!" number, a number that can't be ignored.
Asked what the tax payment would have been on the more than $700 million in tax-exempt properties in the county during the previous tax cycle, Hooten offered a staggering answer: $28 million.
That's $28 million that had to be made up by owners of non-tax-exempt properties.
"You have to understand, that number (for tax-exempt properties) is real estate only," Hooten said. "It doesn't include the furniture inside the buildings or anything else. In most cases, it's also an old number that doesn't reflect improvements made on structures on the property.
"If you bring all that into it, that number would be a whole lot higher."
Not that the number isn't high enough already. The $700,140,189 in tax-exempt properties in Dougherty County represents 24 percent of the county's gross digest (with tax-exempt properties included). Three other Georgia counties -- Fulton with $6,159,266,570, Gwinnett with $1,862,032,940 and Chatham with $1,669,232,868 -- have higher dollar values in tax-exempt properties, but those counties' percentages of their gross digest don't come close to Dougherty's.
Fulton County's total is 10 percent of its digest, Gwinnett's 6 percent and Chatham's 11 percent.
By comparison, Muscogee County's tax-exempt property makes up 11 percent of its gross digest, Bibb County's 9 percent, Lowndes County's 8 percent, Henry County's 5 percent and Cobb County's only 2 percent.
"I'm not surprised or alarmed at those numbers," Hooten said. "It's how the process works. In the state of Georgia, we're all in the same boat. It's the nature of the beast."
Still, the county's tax director said, taxpaying citizens have a right to be concerned.
"The tax burden is not going to change," she said. "It is what it is. What does change is the burden is shifted to the taxpayers whose property is not exempt."
The largest number of exempt properties in Dougherty County in Fiscal Year 2012, discounting $354,098,597 in "other" type properties that Hooten said did not fit neatly into established categories (such as those owned by the Albany-Dougherty Inner City Authority and the county's Payroll Development Authority), were public properties ($256,093,616) and charity hospitals ($56,392,224).
Other categories included religious worship ($19,284,804), educational ($7,735,104), charitable ($7,414,342), nonprofit home for the aged ($2,251,396) and religious burial ($379,120).
Albany city officials are expected to ask Hooten and the county's Tax Assessor Board to reassess tax-exempt properties located within the city limits to determine whether all those properties meet the state requirements of such status.
City Manager James Taylor noted that both tax-exempt and non-exempt properties receieve the same services from the city.
"We think (tax-exempt status) ought to be aggressively challenged," Taylor said. "The organizations that own these properties get the same benefits as everyone else, but they pay nothing for those benefits. The rest of the property owners are carrying the load, and the fewer the number of units there are being taxed, the larger the share of the burden.
"We still have to provide services -- fire, police protection, stormwater, sewer -- to all the tax-exempt properties."
Taylor noted that an analysis of hotels and motels in the city offered some revealing information.
"We did an analysis of about a third of the hotels/motels in the city, and we found a sizeable amount of money we were losing because people weren't doing the records right," the city manager said. "Some people honestly didn't know, but there were some who did. That's why we need to keep a lookout on things like this; the less we follow up, the more likely they are to cut corners."
City Finance Director Kris Newton said the city plans, at the county's suggestion, to formally request a review of tax-exempt properties by the Tax Assessor Board.
"Denver and her staff do a tremendous job," Newton said. "But, like everybody else, they're understaffed. We're hoping to have an opportunity to verify the (tax-exempt) status of properties in the city. If they're following state rules, we'll shut up.
"But, for example, it doesn't make sense to assume that a private business that is paying taxes one day and gets bought out by a tax-exempt organization the next then is granted tax-exempt status overnight."
Dougherty County Commission Chairman Jeff Sinyard said county officials hold the same expectations of all property owners.
"We do not assume, just because a property is determined to have tax-exempt status, that anyone is trying to avoid paying their fair share," Sinyard said. "We expect every citizen and every organization to pay their taxes according to the law. Any who don't meet those expectations will be made to do so."
There's little, Hooten notes, that government agencies or individuals can do to address the high total of tax-exempt properties in the county other than make sure all laws are being followed. After all, she points out, owners of taxable property in the county received $189,478,899 in allowable exemptions (homestead, freeport, conservation, etc.) in FY 2012.
"Any county that has, as we have, large institutions such as the hospital authority, colleges, a military base, a large school system and government buildings like the one we're sitting in, is going to have a significant amount of rightfully exempted property," she said. "We have no choice: If property is legitimately exempt, we cannot tax it.
"There's only one way to change things, and that's through the Legislature."