Fulton tax hike, rising values a double whammy for homeowners


Fulton County residents can comment on the county’s proposed property tax increase at public hearings scheduled at 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. July 9 and at 10 a.m. July 16.

All of the hearings will be held at the Fulton County Government Center Assembly Hall, 141 Pryor St., Atlanta. In addition, residents can participate via video conference at the North Service Center Auditorium, 7741 Roswell Road, Sandy Springs, and at the South Service Center Auditorium, 5600 Stonewall Tell Road, College Park.

The Board of Commissioners will vote on the 2014 tax rate at the July 16 meeting.

George Lentz knew his property tax bill would probably increase when he found out Fulton County had raised the tax value of his Sandy Springs home by 20 percent this year.

But he really started to worry when the Fulton Board of Commissioners proposed a 17 percent increase in the tax rate. The combination of the higher tax rate and his rising home value would cost Lentz an extra $308 in county taxes.

“I think it’s an extreme jump,” Lentz said after calculating his potential bill. “It makes you think about moving.”

Lentz isn’t alone. Thousands of Fulton County property owners face a double whammy of rising property values and a steep tax rate hike. The result could be sticker shock when they get their tax bills later this summer.

According to the Fulton tax assessor’s office, the total value of taxable real estate countywide rose just 1.3 percent percent this year. But individual values vary widely, with some rising much more and others still declining. For those whose property values rose, the proposed tax increase would mean substantial tax hikes.

And county officials are feeling the heat from taxpayers. They're scrambling to find spending cuts that could offset at least some of the proposed tax increase before they make a final decision on the tax rate July 16.

“I’m going to work hard to bring that [tax rate] number down,” said commission Chairman John Eaves. “I certainly want to be sensitive to all the concerns I’ve heard.”

Tax rates in some metro Atlanta counties have risen in recent years as plummeting real estate values took a toll on government revenue. DeKalb County raised its tax rate 26 percent to help balance its budget. Cobb [16 percent] and Gwinnett [21 percent] also raised their tax rates.

Fulton hasn’t raised its countywide tax rate since 1991. In recent years, it leaned heavily on reserve funds to balance its budget. But those reserves are much diminished and the county is struggling to balance its budget.

This year county commissioners cut spending on Grady Memorial Hospital, libraries and other services. But Fulton still has a $48 million hole in its $625.4 million general fund budget, which pays for countywide services like courts, libraries and social services.

To plug it, commissioners have proposed a property tax rate increase that would cost the owner of a $275,000 house an extra $140 a year. But that assumes the home’s value didn’t increase.

Property tax bills are based on how much the property is worth. Generally, when the value rises, so does the tax bill.

A 10 percent increase in value, combined with the tax hike, would cost that same owner of that $275,000 house an extra $270 a year.

When Lentz heard about the proposed tax hike, he sat down to calculate his bill and wasn’t happy with what he found.

“I’m not against them trying to balance their budget,” Lentz said. “But this seems out of line.”

In January five of the seven commissioners approved a budget that assumes they will raise taxes. By the same margin they agreed last month to advertise the 17 percent tax rate hike and schedule a series of public hearings to solicit input.

Fulton County residents can comment on the proposed tax increase at public hearings scheduled at 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. on July 9, and at 10 a.m. on July 16. The hearings will be held at the Fulton County Government Center Assembly Hall, 141 Pryor St., in Atlanta.

By law commissioners can’t approve a rate higher than the one advertised. They can approve a smaller tax increase or none at all.

Commissioner Liz Hausmann said Fulton should reduce spending instead of raising taxes.

“Most folks are still feeling the effects of the recession and, quite frankly, can’t afford to have any higher tax burden,” Hausmann said.

Foregoing a tax increase would likely mean steeper cuts for popular programs. And commissioners are already hearing from constituents who want to restore library hours and other services scaled back earlier this year.

“Nobody wants to see their taxes increase,” Eaves said. “But at the same time, everybody wants services maintained. You can’t really do both.”