DeKalb’s stable values could repeat in other counties

DeKalb County tax rate

2012: 10.12 mills (21.21 advertised, minus 11.09 mills offset by local sales tax)

2013: 8.68 mills (21.21 to be advertised, minus 12.53 projected to be offset by local sales tax)

DeKalb taxes year to year

Average home value, 2011: $156,900.

County taxes after tax credit: $666.31

Average home value, 2012: $136,900

County taxes after tax credit: $477.35

Average home value, 2013: $118,800

County sales tax after tax credit: $348

Property values are mostly flat in DeKalb County, good news for homeowners in Georgia’s third-largest county and beyond as the days of plunging appraisals appear to fade.

Preliminary figures from the DeKalb assessor’s office show that despite pockets of increases and declines, overall prices have been stable countywide. In response, the county proposes to hold its tax rate steady.

Other large metro counties, which like DeKalb had predicted another year of falling values and declining budgets, are also now expecting far less severe drops than thought just six months ago. That means all the governments can better plan their budgets and may slowly begin to funnel money back to popular services such as libraries and parks that saw deep cuts during the recession.

“At this point, coming out even is good news,” DeKalb Finance Director Joel Gottlieb said. “Nobody likes for their citizens’ taxes to go up.”

Explore» 2012 metro Atlanta property value report

In DeKalb, the tax rate is proposed to stay the same for seven out of 10 residents in the unincorporated parts of the county. Homeowners in all but the smallest four cities, which pay more for county police services, may even see slight dips in their countywide tax rate.

Add in a local sales tax used to offset property taxes and for the second year in a row, DeKalb homeowners could end up paying the lowest tax rate in metro Atlanta.

Other counties also look to fare better than previously expected as their digests — the collections of homes and property values whose property taxes fund government budgets — appear to stabilize.

Cobb, for instance, estimated in March that values there would be down 2.3 percent. Fulton and Gwinnett braced for values to dip 1 percent and 1.9 percent, respectively.

The counties expect to release updated numbers later this month and, like DeKalb, now project their digests to fall by less than 1 percent or, in Fulton’s case, be up by about the same margin.

“We are right in that area, we think,” said Stephen White, Cobb’s chief appraiser.

The roller-coaster plunge of values in recent years may have helped in inching to the end of the ride. Bombarded by news reports of foreclosures and cratering values, many residents appealed their appraisals across the region in recent years.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation revealed most counties typically overvalued homes — from 5 percent in DeKalb and Fulton to 13 percent in Gwinnett — prompting many residents to appeal their appraisals and win, thus locking in their values for at least two years.

“I am so grateful to see it stay the same,” said Bonnie Evans, a retired mortgage loan officer whose home in DeKalb’s Smokerise neighborhood remained worth $200,000 after winning her appeal last year.

At the same time, Evans sees signs of hope — more nonforeclosure sales and young families moving in — that prices are poised to increase. “We’re at the beginning,” she said.

Officially DeKalb’s digest did click up about 2 percent, to $19.3 billion after tax exemptions are claimed.

That is far below the $25 billion in countywide values in 2009, before the economic downturn and glut of foreclosures battered prices in DeKalb and elsewhere.

And the 2013 digest is expected to fall again once motor vehicle revenue, expected to be down statewide because of a new law, is finalized.

Still, a flat digest would be a success for DeKalb. CEO Burrell Ellis built the current $559 million budget on projections of a 3 percent drop in the digest and $25 million in lost revenue from the creation of Brookhaven.

Forecasting digests is the wild card when metro counties such as DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett ready their budgets. Their fiscal years begin in January, but the counties don’t know how much tax money they can expect until the digests are ready in May or June.

Each county commonly adopts a midyear budget in summer to account for that difference. Sagging home prices have decimated counties’ abilities to pay the bills for years, forcing them to balance budgets by putting employees on furloughs, freezing hiring and dipping into savings.

This spring, just two years after raising the tax rate 26 percent, DeKalb agreed to spend $1.5 million to give its lowest-paid workers a 3 percent raise. It also is in the process of hiring 25 new police officers and 44 new firefighters.

As long as the final budget is better than that projection as now expected, DeKalb may have a few million more dollars to pay bills or to tuck away.

“If by chance there is any additional funding, we certainly could use it, either in reserves or in the services we haven’t been able to give as many resources as we’d like because of the economy,” said Commissioner Lee May, who heads the County Commission’s budget committee. “It’s a hopeful sign for us.”

DeKalb will release updated digest figures by the end of June. The County Commission will formally announce its plan to hold the tax rate steady at its Tuesday meeting and vote on the midyear budget following a public hearing July 9.