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Atlanta, Fulton seek audits after questions about commercial values

Officials in Atlanta and Fulton County have requested audits to review allegations that government tax appraisers consistently undervalued commercial buildings and may have cost their governments millions in potential tax collections, a trend highlighted earlier this month in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Channel 2 Action News investigation.

Members of the Atlanta City Council and the Fulton County Commission have asked for separate audits in the past week after the news reports revealed that some apartment buildings, warehouses, office complexes and shopping centers are often worth far less, for tax purposes, than buyers paid for them.

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Channel 2's Richard Belcher reports.

Critics say the practice harms residential property owners and other businesses who are accurately assessed because they have to pick up a larger portion of the cost to pay for police, fire, public education, the courts and other public services. Those taxes help fund Fulton’s local cities, school districts, community improvement districts and county government to the tune of millions of dollars each year.

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“It’s clearly a serious problem,” said Julian Bene, a former member of the board of Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development agency, who brought his concerns about sales and value discrepancies to the news organizations. “It would be huge amounts of money.”

Howard Shook, a member of the Atlanta City Council, said the finance committee on Wednesday unanimously approved a recommendation that the city hire an outside firm to review commercial property values. Shook said he expects the matter to pass when it goes before the full council Monday.

Separately, Fulton County Commissioner Lee Morris said he asked the county auditor last week to conduct a similar investigation, countywide.

“It does appear on the surface, at least, that many commercial properties are not being valued what they should be valued at,” Morris said. “I believe in as much transparency in government as possible.”

The audits are sure to intensify focus on the embattled county tax assessors office, which determines individual property values that are the basis for tax bills sent to Fulton property owners.

The office has been under scrutiny for more than a year after failing to keep up with residential property values. Officials were pressured to freeze values last year after they rose sharply and caused residents to protest. The issue is now part of a contentious  legal battle  between the county and the state.

The AJC/Channel 2 investigation into commercial valuations in the city of Atlanta, which ran Nov. 16, examined 264 multimillion dollar commercial property sales since 2015 that were recorded by the research firm Databank Atlanta. The analysis found about 175 properties that sold for at least one and a half times the county’s appraisal that same year, including many that sold for more than twice their appraised value.

Fulton’s chief appraiser, Dwight Robinson, runs the assessors office. Earlier this month, he said that there could be a number of reasons why values could be that much lower than sales prices: values could be frozen after a property owner appealed in a previous year; land could be owned by the development authority and couldn’t be fully valued until the January after a certificate of occupancy is issued; properties might not be sold in arm’s-length sales; or owners could have disputed their values to get them reduced.

Jessica Corbitt, a county spokesperson, said in an email that she had not reviewed the council’s action, and therefore had no comment. She did not respond to a request for comment about Morris’ request for an investigation.

Morris said there could be legitimate reasons for the gaps in commercial values, but thinks an audit is still necessary. He said his request to the county auditor is “not an attempt to embarrass our Board of Assessors or appraisal staff.”

But he said even though Atlanta is investigating, the county needs its own data. And, Morris said, he didn’t limit his request to Atlanta because he thinks there could be a county-wide issue.

For his part, Shook said he hoped to get results of Atlanta’s inquiry back by early next year in time for the city’s annual budget preparations. He said he’s had concerns for years that commercial properties may be undervalued, but the findings in The AJC/Channel 2 investigation demanded further review.

“It’s been a concern for a long, long time,” Shook said. “I’ll be delighted to find out that Fulton County did everything properly. I’ll also be surprised.”

Shook said the sticker shock that homeowners experienced last year made it all the more important to him to check that commercial owners were appropriately valued. He said he did not notify anyone from Fulton County before making the audit request.

“Unfortunately, if we had full confidence in them, we wouldn’t have taken this step,” Shook said.

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