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Think you’re finished with 2017 property taxes? Maybe not in Fulton

When the bills arrived last November, most Fulton County residents paid their property taxes.

In their minds, after that, the 2017 tax year was over.

For county officials, however, 2017 has raged on.

Even as they prepare to send out 2018 bills, officials are still trying to get the state Department of Revenue to approve last year’s tax digest. Depending on what a judge decrees, some taxpayers could eventually owe more than they were originally billed nine months ago.

How did we end up here?

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You may remember — property values spiked last year, and county residents revolted. County commissioners decided to roll back most residential values to 2016 levels, pleasing residents but angering the Department of Revenue. State officials said the county didn’t have the authority to make that unilateral move and refused to accept the tax digest. That’s the official list of all property subject to assessment, and all taxes due, and it must be approved each year.

Fulton leaders appealed the rejection, saying an 1880s law gave commissioners of roads and revenues — precursors to these county commissioners — authority to modify the county’s tax digest. So they reasoned they had the authority, too. They even hired former attorney general Sam Olens — at a cost of $20,000— to try to broker an agreement.

None of it worked. So now Fulton County is going to court, in the hopes that a judge will tell them what they did was OK.

Robb Pitts (left), chairman of Fulton County Board of Commissioners, celebrates with Meria Carstarphen, superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools, and Jeff Rose (right), superintendent of Fulton County Schools after Judge Alan Harvey ruled to allow Fulton County to collect tax money for 2018. The county could be back in court to get its 2017 tax digest approved. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM AJC FILE PHOTO (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

If a judge sides with the Department of Revenue, Fulton County could be forced to re-bill for 2017. Property values could be retroactively raised.

Doing so would cause “substantial harm” to taxpayers and to the school districts, cities, county government and other groups that use Fulton’s tax digest as the basis for their own bills, court papers filed last week by the county said. Those entities would have to issue new tax bills and, potentially, handle more appeals. The filing explains that Lynne Riley, the state revenue commissioner, “has verbally informed representatives of Fulton County that she will not approve the 2017 digest without a ruling by a court that the 2017 digest as submitted was proper under Georgia law.”

Riley’s “refusal to act has created uncertainty for Fulton County and its taxpayers,” the filing said. The delay also means the 2018 tax digest hasn’t been approved — and it won’t be, until the digest for 2017 is.

Robb Pitts, chairman of the Fulton County commission, said he’s willing to work with Riley to get the issue resolved — perhaps she would let the 2017 tax bills stand if Pitts apologized for commissioners’ presumptuousness? It doesn’t hurt to try.

“Relying upon some obscure law was a mistake,” he said.

The county, with Olens’ help, resolved a number of technical issues that were contributing to the holdup. That alone is worth cheering, County Manager Dick Anderson said.

“The ability to re-engage and work through the technical issues is an accomplishment that’s noteworthy,” Anderson said.

He said the county is “one step closer to having a resolution.” But one step closer still isn’t a resolution.

“We’re going to have to resolve this at some point,” Pitts said. “There’s going to have to be a compromise.”

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