New assessment requirement may prove costly

Tucked into the 20-plus new requirements for how Georgia handles property assessments sits a lesser-known provision that may prove costly to taxpayers.

For the first time, owners of non-homestead properties worth more than $1 million have the right to appeal via a hearing officer. Metro Atlanta counties expect commercial and industrial land owners to use the new appeals process more than wealthy second-home owners.

Instead of going before the regular citizens on a Board of Equalization, those property owners will have a shot at a review by a certified appraiser – on the county’s dime.

“It doesn’t cost them anything, so they may as well file,” said DeKalb Chief Appraiser Calvin Hicks of the expect influx of appeals. “The great unknown is how many of them will.” In DeKalb alone, there are 1,100 property owners who could ask for a hearing officer.

Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett did not budget for the cost of hiring those appraisers, though DeKalb has speculated it will spend at least $20,000. Should a wave of challenges come in, finding qualified appraisers could prove to be difficult.

Other counties have not made cost estimates yet but expect to do so soon. The one break for them is the law lets them pay just $25 an hour to the officers.

All four counties have set their rate at that minimum in an effort to control costs. Yet that creates another worry, that the low pay will keep away potential officers who have shelled out both time and money to become certified.

Few people have those credentials, anyway. Gwinnett leads the area with 11 certified appraisers who are available to work there, while Cobb has nine. Both DeKalb and Fulton have just eight, according to the Georgia Association of Assessing Officials.

But only two of Cobb's available appraisers have agreed to work for the county, said Superior Court Clerk Jay Stephenson. He plans to run the process with that pair but believes he could have saved more money in the long run if he could pay the appraisers more.

"You could come out saving some money if you don't have to pay to run your equilization boards, which for us is $400 a day," Stephenson said. "But really, I don't think anyone has an idea yet on how much this is really going to be."

If those potential appraisers stay away, the appeals would head to Board of Equilization in each county.

The counties already pay for several of those three-member panels to handle appeals. But they are expected to be busy with appeals from homeowners and businesses upset about their values in the down economy.

Gwinnett, one of the first counties to meet the appeal deadline, received 31,000 challenges from all property owners this year, said Chief Appraiser Steve Pruitt.

Five thousand of those are from commercial/industrial land owners who are being vetted to see if they’ve requested and qualify for hearing officers.

So far, 60 do. But there is no money from the assessor’s office or superior court clerk’s office set aside to pay hearing officers that the clerk will oversee.

“I don’t have the money and neither does she,” Pruitt said.

How Gwinnett moves forward will likely be the model for the rest of the region.

Fulton's equilization board, for instance, still has 4,000 outstanding appeals from 2010. That is despite holding meetings five days a week and without having sent out notices to every property owner as required this year, said office director Melvin Richardson.

The county’s notices this year had two major flaws, creating the need for corrected notices and delaying the entire process.

“It’s going to be overwhelming this year anyway,” Richardson said. "This is just one more thing."