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Fulton County will go to court Tuesday to defend property value freeze

Fulton County will go to court Tuesday to justify a 2017 decision to freeze most residential property values at the previous year’s levels following an outcry from residents.

The county has filed suit against the state revenue commissioner, who still hasn’t approved the county’s 2017 tax digest. The tax commissioner, Lynne Riley, questioned the legality of Fulton’s actions.

If Fulton’s attorneys fail to convince a judge that county commissioners’ actions were in the right, leaders could be forced to re-bill residents for last year’s property taxes.

“It’s a big deal,” said Robb Pitts, chairman of the Fulton County commission. “It would be utter chaos if we have to send out new bills.”

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Nearly a quarter of the 318,000 residential parcels in Fulton had assessments that were up 50 percent or more in 2017, while half were up by at least 20 percent.

Pitts, who was not on the board when the decision was made last year, said the county’s action “was a bad move” and that he hoped, if the court rules against the county, it will be fined instead of ordered to re-bill residents.

“Have us admit a mistake was made and have us move forward,” Pitts said.

John Eaves, the former chairman of the Fulton County commission, has argued that board members were on solid legal ground when they reasoned an 1880sGeorgia law allowed them to modify the tax digest because it allowed the board’s precursor, the commissioners of roads and revenues, to do so.

“I can live the rest of my life and feel when the board made the decision, that was the right decision, given all the limited options,” Eaves said Friday. “If there’s a retroactive action, some sort of catastrophe situation would happen. People are going to be hurt.”

Fulton has tried and failed to negotiate a settlement with the Department of Revenue. Commissioners even went so far as to hire former Attorney General Sam Olens this summer in an attempt to solve the dispute. He was unable to do so.

A spokesperson for the Department of Revenue said he could not comment on the pending litigation. Salma Ahmed, the chairwoman of the Fulton Board of Assessors, said she hoped DeKalb County Judge Alan Harvey — who has twice granted Fulton County permission to collect taxes while the dispute is ongoing — “continues to be understanding.”

R.J. Morris, a former member of the board of assessors, said he sold his house in Fulton County and moved to Hall County because of frustrations with property tax issues.

Voters passed a number of ballot measures this month that are intended to curb increases in taxable property values going forward. Sen. John Albers, R-Roswell, who sponsored several of them, said he believes the county was in the right when it froze property values. The action, he said, gave legislators the time to craft the ballot measures that residents voted on this month.

Albers said the outcome of the case will determine if elderly residents will be taxed out of their homes or residents can afford to pay their bills.

“We’re talking about big money here,” he said.

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