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Fulton County hires former chief justice for property assessment defense

Fulton officials have hired a former Georgia Supreme Court chief justice to defend the county against accusations that it valued property inconsistently, sometimes resulting in neighbors paying vastly different property taxes.

Leah Ward Sears, the former chief justice, was put on retainer in June, after two groups of residents — including Felicia Moore, president of the Atlanta city council — filed suit saying the county appraised similar homes in the same neighborhood differently, increasing the value of those that had been recently purchased but not of others on the same street. The suits have since been combined. The county has agreed to pay Sears and her partners at Smith, Gambrell & Russell $400 an hour.

Leah Ward Sears is the former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia. When she was appointed in 1992 by Gov. Zell Miller, she became the first African-American female Chief Justice in the United States. She was also the first woman and youngest person to sit on Georgia's Supreme Court.

A former member of the Board of Assessors who alerted the board to the inconsistencies was subpoenaed by attorneys representing residents. R.J. Morris, whose term on the board expired this summer, said he was contacted by an attorney retained by Fulton County to represent him, then told the county didn’t have the budget to pay for his legal fees.

Jessica Corbitt, a Fulton County spokesperson, said the county had initiated the process of setting up an attorney, but ultimately did not provide Morris counsel because his being subpoenaed to provide a deposition in the case was “unrelated to his duties as a former member of the Board of Assessors.”

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“As such, the department is not required to provide legal representation on his behalf,” Corbitt said.

Fulton County Commission Chairman Robb Pitts told Channel 2 Action News that Morris may have been acting as a private citizen, and not as a member of the Board of Assessors, when he brought up the question of whether homes were being valued properly at a Board of Assessors’ meeting.

Morris rejected that assessment.

“I did my job and found out the board members in the previous years had not done their jobs. They had hurt taxpayers,” Morris said. “…I did this as a board member. You can look on the agenda and see an official action by an official board member.”

Mitchell Graham, an attorney representing homeowners, estimated counties, cities and school boards could be on the hook for more than $36 million if he and others succeed in getting refunds for residents who paid more in property taxes than their neighbors. Morris estimated 18,000 households were overbilled.

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