Fulton signs deal with state, saving homeowners from paying more taxes

A deal between Fulton County and the state has been signed, settling all lawsuits in a 2017 property assessment drama and relieving taxpayers of worry they’d be billed extra to end the matter.

Fulton Commission Chairman Robb Pitts on Monday signed the agreement with the tax-collecting Georgia Department of Revenue, ending a two-year saga that had both sides fighting in court and taxpayers fearing they would be asked to pay more property tax.

“The settlement with Fulton County allows both the Department and the county to move on from this issue,” said Georgia’s revenue commissioner David Curry. “I’m glad both sides could come to an agreement and I look forward to putting this behind us.”

David Humphreys, owner of a Duluth property tax appeal business, saw it differently: “Fulton County kind of slapped the state Department of Revenue in the face.”

BACKGROUND | Fulton settles with state in tax fight; homeowners won't owe

The battle boiled down to whether Fulton had the right to freeze 2017 residential property values in response to resident outrage over drastic increases in their assessed values.

The sudden increases were the result of Fulton trying to play catch-up after years of failing to keep up with metro’s ballooning property values.

Nearly a quarter of Fulton’s 318,000 residential parcels were given assessments up 50% or more — while half were up by at least 20%.

Credit: Christina R. Matacotta

Credit: Christina R. Matacotta

Residents demanded county commissioners do something. Then the county attorney's office found a law from the 1880s that commissioners used as a basis to freeze most 2017 residential property values at 2016 levels.

Part of the deal signed Monday involved the county agreeing it will not use that old law again. Another term of the deal, Pitts said, is that the county doesn’t have to pay any fees or fines to the state as a result of the lawsuit.

“We have a clean slate now,” Pitts said.

READ | Fulton notices don't reflect all tax changes passed last year

Using the law was “flimsy at best,” said Humphreys, whose company Equitax has been in business more than 30 years.

“It was pretty big of the state to settle this without any repercussions for Fulton. They got lucky, as far as I’m concerned,” Humphreys said. “They’re fortunate there wasn’t more repercussion for doing something that was clearly against the rules.”

Fulton County Manager Dick Anderson said that this whole dust-up prompted Fulton to look at its broken property assessment system “from an end-to-end perspective.”

Officials admitted Monday that the county still has a long way to go. Anderson said the county has already spent millions of dollars on new technology and other needed changes.

One of the biggest factors to smoothing out the process was legislators capping the yearly increase in taxable value to prevent another massive hike in assessed value like the one for 2017.

For residents in Alpharetta, Johns Creek, Milton, Mountain Park and Roswell, the maximum increase for owner-occupied homes is 3% a year or the federal inflation rate. In Atlanta, that number is 2.6%.

BACKGROUND | Commercial properties in Atlanta undervalued for taxes, report says

Still, Humphreys said some of his clients have been pushed out of their homes by rising property assessments, including a woman in her 80s who went from paying $16,000 a year in taxes for her home to $45,000. He said it’s painful on the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum, where he saw a client’s home value go from $92,000 to $210,000 suddenly.

Pitts said Monday that the increases are ultimately a good sign for Fulton.

In mid-June, homeowners got their new 2019 property assessment notices. County officials on Monday, like they have for weeks, declined to give information about the average increase in property values, saying it varies from person to person.

Any taxpayers who doesn't agree with their assessment has until Aug. 2 to appeal their values if they think the county's appraisals are incorrect.

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