Freezing Fulton property taxes would leave Atlanta Public Schools out in the cold

In an emergency meeting today at 12:30 p.m., the Fulton County Board of Assessors will face property owners angry over steep climbs in the assessed values of their homes.

Those assessments determine property taxes, and Fulton and Atlanta homeowners naturally don't want to see higher tax bills. Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, whose own Atlanta tax bill shot up 53 percent, understands taxpayer concerns. However, she also has a school system to operate, one that has been hard hit by soaring pension costs and rising healthcare. (Those expenses are skyrocketing as the state increasingly shifts costs to districts. Carstarphen inherited a massive pension liability due to years of underfunding. As Robert Stockwell notes on his APS-related blog: "Since at least 2002, APS has made payments ranging from $39-46 million on an annual basis and the annual required payments will escalate significantly over the next several years.")

Freezing assessments would hurt Atlanta schools and kids, said Carstarphen. She fears Fulton will fall back on the politically safe response to property owner outrage -- throw out the new assessments and use the 2016 valuations. That could mean no rise in funds for schools despite growth in the tax digest.

"If they delay the digest or freeze assessments, it is just passing the problem on to another year," said Carstarphen in an interview late Wednesday afternoon. "The only solution put on the table so far is to freeze assessments at the 2016 levels. We know it is a city that has had growth; everybody knows this."

Atlanta's budget was months in the making and involved public hearings and long discussions, she said. "People want to see transparency. We try not to surprise people...And here we are with a possible surprise. No new revenue. We are really working to get a quality workforce for one of America's great capital cities," said Carstarphen.

Fulton projected a 5 to 7 percent growth in tax revenues so Carstarphen built her Fiscal Year 2018 school budget, signed contracts and hired staff predicated on a 6 percent increase, figuring it was a safe middle ground.

Carstarphen wants Fulton to consider other options, such as capping assessment increases or phasing increases in over time. "We are willing to do our part and we are willing take actions to get us to a more balanced solution, but we can't keep kicking this can down the road," she said.

The Fulton appraiser stands behind the assessments. As the AJC reported:

For nearly a quarter of Fulton County homeowners, assessments are up 50 percent or more. Half of the county's nearly 320,000 parcels received assessments that are at least 20 percent higher. The jumps came because Fulton didn't maintain regular increases in past years and had valued properties too far below market value, Fulton County Chief Appraiser Dwight Robinson has said.

Robinson has acknowledged the sharp jump in value for many homeowners. But he said that after years of ignoring a rising market, the county is likely to be fined by the state if he doesn't capture the increase in this year's assessments.

The state requires governments to value residential properties between 90 and 110 percent of fair market value. Robinson said the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts notified his office last year that Fulton's assessments would be out of compliance. Its letter indicated Fulton County was below 80 percent of fair market value. "Statistically, we're OK, " Robinson said last week of the new assessments. "The values are good."

In a statement, APS said tonight:

As a school district in a growing city, Atlanta Public Schools (APS) has been working to keep up with mandatory pressures – the state’s increase to teachers’ base salaries, pension and retirement obligations and rising health care costs among them.  The projected 6% growth in local revenue pays for those mandatory obligations.

Understandably, the reassessments left many residents in a difficult position as the digest may show double-digit growth with individual property reassessments ranging widely from 1 percent increase to over 100 percent.   At 12:30 p.m., Thursday, June 15, the County Board of Assessors plans to consider solutions for the reassessments including freezing property values to 2016 tax values.

While we understand the impact that reassessments could have on our communities, we must also consider the damage deep cuts will have on our schools and the education of our students especially at this late stage in the budget and hiring process.

Our first priority is our kids. Our mission is to prepare each one for college and career, and help make them good citizens along the way.  Every decision we make is based upon that ideal, and we make those decisions in a fiscally responsive and prudent fashion.

As we explained in a letter to Fulton County Attorney Patrise Perkins-Hooker, we believe the county needs to find a more balanced, more measured and more reasonable approach that provides at least the 6% increase in the digest as projected. To help reach that solution, APS will consider a millage rollback to ease taxpayer pressures.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.