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Updated: 11:00 a.m. Sunday, July 1, 2012 | Posted: 5:00 a.m. Sunday, July 1, 2012

Location may sway tax appeals



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Location may sway tax appeals photo
Bita Honarvar
Harold Cunliffe’s evidence for lower property taxes was rejected by Fulton County officials, so he took them to court -- and he won. The county wound up paying his legal fees as well as lowering his taxes. Above, he is shown in front of some of the vacant lots he owns.

By David Wickert

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Harold Cunliffe got $3,500 knocked off his Fulton County property tax bill, but it took a lawsuit to do it.

Yvonne Elliott contested her Gwinnett County tax assessment and saved more than $400 on her tax bill without even appearing before a local appeals board.

Each year, tens of thousands residents across metro Atlanta protest the assessed values local governments use to calculate their taxes. Their odds of winning those appeals depend, in part, on where they live, an analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found.

Residents of Clayton, Fayette and Gwinnett counties were the most successful, the newspaper determined. Douglas, Rockdale and Cobb county residents had the worst chance of success.

Explanations for the different outcomes vary. Critics say some counties are unfairly stingy when it comes to appeals. They say appraisers are trying to protect government budgets, which rely heavily on property taxes that have tumbled along with home values.

“They just don’t want to budge (on property values),” said tax consultant Philip Johns. “They’re holding tight on that dollar.”

County appraisers say property owners get a fair shake in the appeals process. They attributed the disparate results to real estate market forces and other factors.

“I believe the idea that you can’t fight city hall is wrong,” said Cobb County Chief Appraiser Phil Hogsed. “If you have a serious problem with your home value, the system works.”

The AJC analyzed the outcome of more than 120,000 residential property appeals in 11 metro Atlanta counties from 2010 and 2011. It examined only finalized appeals.

Among the findings:

-- More than eight of 10 Clayton County residential property owners won at least a 10 percent reduction — the informal benchmark some tax professionals use to judge whether an appeal is successful. So did about three of four Fayette and Gwinnett residents.

-- Only 40 percent of residential property owners in Douglas County won at least a 10 percent reduction, as did about 43 percent of Rockdale and 46 percent of Cobb owners.

-- Success rates were 60 percent in DeKalb and Cherokee counties, 57 percent in Fulton and 56 percent in Henry and Forsyth.

-- When it came to the size of the typical reduction, Cherokee County came out on top. The median reduction in value in Cherokee was nearly 36 percent. (In any range of values, half lie below the median and half lie above it.) Cobb, at the other end of spectrum, had a median reduction in value of 17 percent.

County appraisers use real estate sales and other information to determine the value of property each year. Those values, along with tax rates set by elected officials, determine how much owners pay in state and local property taxes.

In virtually every part of the region, home values have plummeted in the wake of the Great Recession. In response, county appraisers have cut values by billions of dollars. But three AJC investigations in recent years have shown that county appraisals failed to reflect the actual decline in values.

Two counties — Clayton and Gwinnett — where the newspaper found the greatest discrepancies between appraisals and true values were also among the counties granting the largest number of appeals, according to the new AJC analysis.

Chief Appraiser Steve Pruitt attributed Gwinnett’s high appeals success rate in part to the prevalence of foreclosures, which lower values for surrounding properties and make it easier for owners to win reductions.

Appraisers say they welcome appeals. Often, it’s a chance for counties to learn about significant changes — like storm damage or demolished buildings — that affect values. (Appraisers rely on market data rather than physically inspecting each neighborhood.)

“If [appraisers] don’t know about it, they can’t consider it,” said Cherokee County Chief Appraiser John Adams.

Dissatisfied owners can seek a reduction in value through three procedural levels. First they appeal to the local board of tax assessors. If they don’t get what they think is fair, they can turn to a board of equalization, a citizen panel that conducts formal hearings. If they’re still not satisfied, they can appeal to Superior Court.

Appeals procedures are spelled out in state law, but there’s plenty of room for interpretation when it comes to property values. Owners say their evidence is sometimes ignored.

Fulton County officials rejected Cunliffe’s evidence, so he took them to court. Ultimately they conceded his properties were worth what Cunliffe said they were and paid his $22,182 legal bill. The county also spent at least $4,200 on its own legal costs — all in what Cunliffe sees as an unsuccessful bid to try to keep $3,500 in tax revenue.

“As a taxpayer in Fulton, that breaks my heart,” he said.

Fulton Chief Appraiser David Fitzgibbon said his office erred in not settling with Cunliffe sooner.

“We should never let a case go to court where it’s going to cost us more, even if we win it, than we would collect in taxes on it,” Fitzgibbon said.

Elliott had a far easier time with her Gwinnett County appeal. She hired a tax consultant who negotiated a 20 percent reduction in the value of her Lawrenceville home. Her tax savings: $413 a year.

“That’s a lot of money,” Elliott said. “I was really happy.”

Jeff George of Property Tax Advisors of America called Gwinnett “the fairest one out there.” Though he doesn't always win appeals for his clients, George said Gwinnett will lower values if he presents solid evidence.

By contrast, George said, Cobb County officials resist lowering values even in the face of substantial evidence. He believes the county’s boards of equalization, which are supposed to be independent, are too cozy with county assessors.

“You don’t get a fair shake there,” George said.

But Hogsed, the county’s chief appraiser, said Cobb appraisers lower values when owners let them know about changes affecting the value. He said many of those changes occur without a formal appeal and wouldn’t be accounted for in the newspaper’s analysis.

Johns, the tax consultant, believes Douglas appraisers are trying to protect the county budget. He said an appraiser once told him during an appeal mediation session the county might have to close schools if property values continued to fall.

“Maybe you don’t need to shut our schools down,” Johns said. “Maybe you need to trim some of this fat government you’ve got over here.”

Douglas Chief Appraiser Benny Waldrop rejected the idea that his staff is trying to protect tax revenue by fighting appeals. He said Douglas appraisers are conservative about lowering values, just as they were conservative about raising values when the market was booming.

“When we were conservative about going up, people didn’t mind so much,” Waldrop said.

State Sen. Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock, sponsored a 2010 law that made it easier for property owners to appeal, but he still hears complaints. He’s drafting a new measure that would create a state board to hear complaints and punish local officials who ignore laws on property assessments and appeals.

“People are going to complain just because they lost their appeal,” Rogers said. “But if you have blatant violations of the law, [violators] don’t need to be in that system anymore.”

Metro-Atlanta counties where you can still appeal your property value and the deadline to do so:

Cobb: July 2

DeKalb: July 14

Douglas: Aug. 13

In other counties the deadline has passed.

Appealing to the appraisers

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently asked three private appraisers, a county chief appraiser and a county board of equalization member to share some tips on how to improve your chances of winning a property tax appeal. Here’s what they had to say.

Show up — with a smile.

Bring evidence, including photos and other illustrations, but keep it simple.

Ask yourself: Is it worth it? Calculate how much less in taxes you would pay by winning the reduction you seek.

If you have a pricey home or think you’re due a major reduction in value, consider hiring a professional

Want more information? You can find it through the Fulton County Taxpayers Foundation at fctf.org or the state of Georgia at etax.dor.ga.gov/ptd/adm/taxguide/appeals.aspx.

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