DeKalb flubs notice period on property tax appeals

At issue are hearings before the county’s Boards of Equalization, panels of county residents who decide cases not resolved by staff or the board of tax assessors. Winning the appeal generally means paying less in taxes.

State law gives owners 20 days from the date of notification to get ready for their hearing.

But the Superior Court Clerk's office sent out two days of hearing notices giving the recipients only one day to prepare. With 250 cases slated daily, that means 500 people got such notices.

“I was never so upset in all my life,” Sharon Blackwell said of the certified letter she received on Saturday, mailed from the county last Friday, announcing that her hearing was slated for Monday. “It feels like DeKalb County is playing games.”

Superior Court Clerk Debra DeBerryacknowledged Monday that her office made "an error." The mistake only affects hearings on Monday and Tuesday, so that other hearings slated this week will not be a problem, she said.

“It was not supposed to happen,” said DeBerry, who blamed a scheduling change.

For years, the boards had scheduled every appeal individually, in 15-minute increments, throughout the day. Many property owners were no-shows, so DeBerry implemented a block schedule starting this month.

In that system, 125 cases are scheduled every morning and another 125 cases are put on the afternoon calendar. If there are no-shows the boards move on to the next case.

That pace is needed so DeKalb can slog through 19,636 appeals from last year by June, DeBerry said. The goal is to solve all of the cases by the time the 2012 appraisals are sent out and new appeals start coming in.

“I know what they are trying to do, but if people aren’t getting enough time, we have to address it,” DeKalb County Commissioner Elaine Boyer said.

Boyer said she heard from two constituents panicked over their limited notice, and she is looking into the scheduling issue.

In neighboring Gwinnett County, 31,162 property owners appealed their appraisals last year. That’s 11 percent of the county’s property, slightly more than DeKalb’s 9 percent, but there were no reports of problems, a county spokesman said.

Donna Broadus, a Realtor who helps owners appeal with her firm My Property Tax Appeals, said Gwinnett uses the one-hearing-at-a-time schedule that DeKalb scrapped. She thinks it’s more than just a scheduling issue.

She said she’s had several DeKalb clients who had not received their hearing notices but were already scheduled. Broadus found the times online, at the county property appraiser’s searchable database for each county property.

“If you don’t know to look there and you don’t get your notice, you’re missing your day in court,” Broadus said. “You miss it, and your appeal is out.”

That could mean more money in county coffers. Property owners who appeal pay just 85 percent of their tax bill, until the appeal is settled. Those who lose, or whose case is dismissed when they don’t show up, must immediately pay that other 15 percent.

For Blackwell, that was another $800 she would have to scrounge up had she officially missed her appeal on Monday. The county called to apologize to her and said it will reschedule, though, and with plenty of notice.

“I keep thinking about all these folks doing handstands, trying to figure out how they can get off of work when they have one day’s notice,” Blackwell said. “I think the county was playing a game. At least they lost.”

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