Metro Atlanta home values up; so are taxes

The long-awaited rise in home values is coming at a price — higher tax bills for unsuspecting residents across metro Atlanta.

Property assessments are up almost everywhere in the region, but few local governments are reducing tax rates.

The result: Property tax bills are costing homeowners hundreds or thousands of dollars more than they paid last year.

Residents’ taxable property values jumped in each of Atlanta’s four core counties this year, with increases ranging from less than 4 percent in Fulton County to nearly 17 percent in Gwinnett County, according to tax documents. The value of residential properties went up 11 percent in DeKalb County and 7 percent in Cobb County.

Some of those higher valuations came as a shock to homeowners.

Sam Gris has seen Fulton County’s assessment of his property rise by 68 percent since last year — a sharp increase to $378,600, which would raise his annual taxes by about $3,000. He said the the county’s estimate is about $50,000 to $60,000 higher than what his home in Atlanta’s Reynoldstown neighborhood would sell for.

“They don’t have to crush us while we’re all recovering,” said Gris, a financial adviser whose two-story home was valued at $225,000 last year. “I can’t figure out how they have me priced like this. It’s really painful.”

Property tax bills are based on a combination of how much counties say a property is worth and the tax rate for services such as public schools, police and parks.

Residents face a tax increase when assessments rise but tax rates remain the same.

Metro Atlanta tax appraisers were slow to reduce home valuations after the recession began in late 2008, causing a disparity between taxable and actual property values, according to previous investigations by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Now, some homeowners said, county governments are taking advantage of the economic recovery by ramping up assessments that have been depressed for the last few years.

In Gwinnett County, where the most dramatic increase in property values is occurring, homeowner Kevin Tweddle said his property’s assessed value climbed 18 percent this year, to nearly $560,000.

“It raises an eyebrow. Where does the county come up with this stuff?” asked Tweddle, whose estimated property tax on his Suwanee home rose about $1,400. “It doesn’t make sense. Property values are going up, but not by that much.”

Homeowners in Fulton County are being hit twice, with assessments creeping upward and the county commission proposing a 17 percent increase in the property tax rate. Most Atlanta residents will have to pay the Fulton County tax hike, but they’ll catch a break on the city portion of their property tax bill because elected officials in the city voted for a full rollback of its property taxes.

Taxpayers like Catherine Bernard, who lives in the young city of Brookhaven, said she was frustrated that her city council members didn’t do more to cut property taxes. They voted for a tiny reduction in the tax rate, but the growth in property values means many residents will pay more than they did last year.

“Everyone I’ve talked to is just completely baffled about why the city needs more money,” said Bernard, a criminal defense attorney whose DeKalb County assessment increased 31 percent this year, to $520,400. “It sets the precedent for the nickle and diming of Brookhaven taxpayers.”

Georgia’s “Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights” law, passed in 1999, was designed to protect homeowners from back-door tax increases created by escalating property values. The law forces local governments to slash property tax rates to account for rising assessments unless they hold three public hearings, then vote on a tax increase.

After going through that process, most county commissions, city councils and school boards in the region voted this year not to reduce their property tax rates.

The law increased transparency, but it didn’t place a limit on annual property tax increases, said Kelly McCutchen, president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.

Salim Jetha said Cobb County’s higher valuation of his property — a 35 percent increase over last year — undercut his confidence in government. He doesn’t understand why his assessment would rise from $375,000 last year to $505,000 this year.

“It sometimes seems that the county doesn’t have any sense of accountability when they go raising assessments that drastically,” said Jetha, who works in property management.

Tax agents, who represent homeowners appealing their appraisals, said property values escalated so much this year because sales have picked up and there are fewer foreclosed homes on the market.

“You have some fat governments out there that don’t want to make cuts,” said Jeff George of KLM Property Tax Solutions, who is receiving more calls from homeowners seeking help with property tax appeals. “They cut values deeply, and now they’re coming back.”

Steve Pruitt, Gwinnett County’s tax assessor, acknowledged that some individual homes may be overvalued because the government uses a “mass appraisal” system, where counties evaluate whole neighborhoods and account for sales of nearby properties. But overall, Gwinnett’s total appraised values will be close to market values. He also said some of the rise in property values won’t result in higher taxes because the county increased homestead exemptions.

“Sometimes those assumptions are wrong, and then it’s the taxpayer’s responsibility to appeal and bring the information to the table to show us that their property is different,” Pruitt said. “That’s the process we have to work with.”

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