Opinion: Property-tax relief falls short for Atlanta homeowners

Fulton County residents soon will experience a flashback to last summer, and the sticker shock a simple little letter in the mail brought them.

It'll be deja vu all over again when they receive the notice of their 2018 property assessments. Given what happened last year — when most Fulton homeowners were hit with at least a 20 percent increase, and many with increases of 50 percent or more — the numbers they see may defy logic and even their ability to pay. But their ability to do something about this sudden financial whammy will depend on where they live.

If they live in north Fulton, they'll be able to vote in November to end this form of surprise tax billing. A series of bills headed to the governor's desk allow voters to extend the county's floating homestead exemption to all north Fulton cities plus the Fulton County school system. If they approve, the taxable portion of their home value could only rise each year by the lesser of 3 percent or the rate of inflation.

If they live in Atlanta, however, their ability to act will be far more limited.

One measure, House Bill 820 by Rep. Beth Beskin, R-Atlanta, would limit annual assessment increases to 2.6 percent — but only for the city's portion of taxes. The portion that goes to Atlanta Public Schools, about half of city homeowners' tax bills, would be unaffected.

(Before you give Atlanta officials credit for agreeing to the measure, know that they exacted a pernicious price: The bill would also exempt the city from a legal requirement to advertise a tax increase if it doesn’t roll back the millage rate to offset a rise in the tax digest.)

Separate legislation to address the APS portion of the bill is pending in the Senate. But it would be far less generous than north Fulton's floating homestead exemption. Senior citizens would see their homestead exemption rise to $100,000 from the current $30,000; for everyone else, it would rise only to $50,000.

At $50,000, a homeowner wouldn’t pay tax on a house valued at $125,000 or less. The median sales price in the city in January was almost double that, at $245,000.

What’s more, a $20,000 increase offsets only a $50,000 increase in assessed value. Given the way home prices have been rising, and the number of people with huge increases in their assessments, that bump in the homestead exemption won’t protect many people for very long.

The bills’ sponsor, Sen. Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta, said the $100,000/$50,000 levels were the most APS would agree to accept without simply turning around and raising its millage rate, which she said would not be “real tax relief.”

Taking all that into consideration, homeowners in Atlanta might want to know a couple of things.

First, how much money is enough for their public school system? Including capital expenditures, APS spent over $18,000 per student in 2015-16, the latest year for which complete state data are available. That's $7,000 higher than the state average, and $5,000 more than Fulton County's schools spend.

Second, when we hear so much about affordable housing in Atlanta, how does APS justify blocking greater relief for homeowners from the soaring property taxes, which make up one of the biggest threats to affordability?

Back in January, APS Superintendent Meria Carstarphen even said the district stayed closed for snow an extra day because too many of its employees live outside the city, due to the lack of affordable housing in the city. Letting property taxes continue to skyrocket doesn't help.

It just might drive more employees — and other homeowners — out of the city.