Attorney Charles Huddleston (left) and Meria Carstarphen, superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools, are all smiles after DeKalb Judge Alan Harvey agreed in November to allow Fulton County collect tax money. A number of proposals would change taxing rules for jurisdictions across the county. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM AJC FILE PHOTO

Fulton County property tax proposals would keep bills artificially low

Fixing Fulton County’s broken property assessment system is one thing. Solving for what residents really care about — higher tax bills — is another.

Fulton County officials acknowledge that the county’s property tax system is broken, after assessors for years failed to keep up with rising values as the housing market improved.

The county is hiring more assessors and spending more money to try to ensure that assessments in 2018 and beyond are accurate.

The problem for many is that accurate assessments will likely mean higher property values — and bigger bills.

In 2017, the first set of Fulton County property assessments that were sent to residents indicated most homes were greatly undervalued. Half of the county’s residential parcels saw values that jumped by 20 percent or more, causing an outcry from residents.

County leaders acted quickly to quell the uproar, freezing 2017 values at 2016 levels. But the 2016 values were also problematic, and were artificially low. After the state Department of Revenue rejected Fulton County’s tax digest, county leaders got permission from a judge to bill residents at the adjusted level. The digest still has not been approved, and the county has petitioned the court to keep those lower values. A court date has not been set.

Now, while Fulton is working to get its assessment process right, state leaders are working to solve the problem of sticker shock.

(In addition to making changes to the property assessment process, governments also have the ability to control property taxes by lowering or raising their tax rates. )

The proposed solutions are many, and varied. And they could have effects that extend beyond lower tax bills.

One set of laws would let residents vote on proposals that would cap the value of homes for tax purposes for homeowners in owner-occupied houses. The proposal only applies to Fulton County Schools and some north Fulton cities, and would mean that regardless of the increase in property values, assessed values couldn’t go up more than 3 percent. Sandy Springs and Fulton County already have a similar provision.

So far, no similar legislation has been proposed for south Fulton cities.

Supporting north Fulton homeowners, but not south, “is what I don’t think we’re down here to do,” Fulton County Commissioner Marvin Arrington said Wednesday.

One other problem: the cap would begin with those artificially low, 2016 values. That would keep schools and governments from realizing the benefits of rising property values when it comes to paying for services.

Sen. Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta, said that concerns her. If people’s taxes are lower than they should be, she said, homeowners might be reluctant to sell for fear of buying a new house with a much greater tax liability. It could make Fulton County like San Francisco, she said, where there is a housing crisis.

Eugene James, the regional director of housing information firm MetroStudy and a former Fulton County chief appraiser, said that’s a valid concern. If laws are changed to keep tax bills low before everyone’s assessments are accurate, he said, it won’t be fair to residents.

“They’re trying to come up with a band-aid solution to a problem. It may be politically popular, but that don’t make it right,” James said. “Let the people who can afford to pay taxes do it. Try to help those who are truly in need.”

Jordan and others are working on other proposals, for Atlanta and the Atlanta Public Schools, that would increase homestead exemptions — meaning a home’s taxable value would be lower — while at the same time allowing residents to pay high tax bills over five years.

And legislators are also hearing a proposal that would in most cases allow Fulton to keep sending assessments at 2016 levels until 2019.

While the proposals would save some residents money on their tax bills, they would also propagate a system that has been unfair to those residents whose values are correct, and who are paying their fair share of property taxes while their neighbors catch a break, said Dwight Robinson, the Fulton County tax assessor. Already, the state Department of Revenue told the county that its 2016 values were problematic.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to tell you if 2016 is deficient, 2017 is going to be deficient,” Robinson said. “If you use a base year that’s deficient, does that make for a good solution to the problem?”

Robinson said he’s not opposed to capping tax increases, but he wants to make sure any solution is fair to all residents.

It’s not clear what of the proposals will pass, if new ones will be introduced or what the true impact on tax bills will be.

Bob Ellis, a Fulton County commissioner, said he supports the caps, which he hopes will allow people to have more consistency in their tax bills, instead of experiencing huge jumps as areas become more desirable. Lori Henry, the mayor of Roswell, said she’s in favor of anything that keeps residents from getting heartburn when their tax bills come.

But she understands, too, that Roswell needs to bring in a certain amount of money to provide residents services. If there is a cap, she said, the city’s tax rate might need to change to bring in more money.

“None of this stuff is foolproof,” Ellis said. “But from the taxpayer’s standpoint, there should be consistency in your tax bill. I shouldn’t just be forced out of my home because I can’t pay my property tax.”

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