Sales tax creating lower property taxes in DeKalb

Food, shoes and cars cost a penny more in DeKalb County, but most property owners should see lower county tax bills this year because of it.

DeKalb and Rockdale are the only Georgia counties where voters have approved the homestead option sales tax, or HOST, to offset property taxes. With buying up, the county has the cash, that sales tax revenue, to offset more than half of its millage rate. That means property owners will pay lower actual rates than those in Cobb, Gwinnett and Fulton counties.

“People don’t realize, I think, the improvements HOST has had on their tax bills,” said County Finance Director Joel Gottlieb. “This year, it adds up to $23 million less they’re paying in taxes.”

The savings apply only to county taxes that cover services ranging from libraries to police to courts. Homeowners can still expect to see higher bills if the DeKalb school system raises taxes or if they live in cities where the property tax rates are going up.

The expected savings come a year after DeKalb raised its property tax rate 26 percent to make ends meet. And, the increase in sales tax money coincides with a countywide 8 percent slide in property value this year.

HOST collections are so strong -- $103.4 million last year – that homeowners whose property value has gone up will still pay less in county taxes, as long as the value didn’t jump more than 20 percent.

The county assessor’s office does not have a tally of how many of the 230,000 properties have seen that sort of increase. But the county expects that most of the 74 percent of residents of unincorporated areas from Brookhaven to Ellenwood will get a break.

“That’s great. It’s something,” said Mitch Cohen, a retired infectious disease specialist who can expect to save about $62 on his county taxes even though the county said his Briarcliff Woods home is worth 18 percent more this year.

“But there is still this residual problem in the assessments, so that even if I am paying less in taxes, I might still be paying too much,” Cohen added.

Several Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigations in recent years have found residential appraisals across the region are too high, meaning homeowners pay too much in property taxes.

The typical home appraisal in DeKalb was 10 percent too high in 2011, according to the AJC analysis. Typical residential appraisals in other counties also were too high: 29 percent above market value in Clayton County, 16 percent in Gwinnett, 13 percent in Cobb and 7 percent in Fulton.

The Board of Assessors is reassessing about 4,000 homes, mostly near Cohen in north-central DeKalb, because of mathematical errors that calculated double- and triple-percentage increases in values.

Cohen hasn’t gotten a new assessment and is appealing the $365,100 value put on his four-bedroom home.

If he wins, he would not only pay less taxes this year but could contribute to another countywide decline in values. That in turn could mean an even greater share of property taxes being offset by shopping again next year.

In the meantime, Gottlieb is expected to tell a County Commission committee Thursday how the county expects to shave about $7 million in spending to offset its budget gap because of the decline in values overall.

The budget committee may also discuss any additional cuts it will recommend, which could lower county taxes further. The committee meets at 10 a.m. at the Manuel Maloof building in downtown Decatur.