Taxpayer group seeks tales of woe from appeals hearings

Certain that Fulton homeowners are being systematically steamrolled in tax appeal hearings, but still lacking concrete proof, the director of a taxpayer advocacy group will will try a sweeping intelligence-gathering tactic: surveys mailed to every property owner who takes his or her case to the Board of Equalization.

Earlier this year, Fulton County Taxpayers Foundation Executive Director Barbara Payne told agency Director Melvin Richardson that her network of members would start filming hearings, where residents arguing for lower tax values face off against county appraisers in front of a three-member board selected from the jury pool.

Payne said in a February email that she was receiving constant reports of board members treating taxpayers as "second-class citizens," refusing to consider arguments, leaving tax values overinflated, then daring homeowners to appeal on to Superior Court because they'll only lose. Richardson said he had no evidence that.

No instances have been caught on film or audio, Payne said, but she's not giving up. Since she went to work for the foundation in 2007, she said she's heard story after story of equalization boards inexplicably siding with the county, seemingly unable to grasp the concept of fair market value.

"They're there to bang the gavel on whatever the county has to say," Payne said. "The whole process does not make the property owner feel respected, or listened to."

Starting next week, the taxpayers foundation will send questionnaires to everyone who appeals to the board, asking them to describe their experience, what evidence they presented, what the county presented and how the board ruled.

Payne said the survey results will be turned over to state Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock,who sponsored tax reforms through Senate Bill 346 and is pushing for further changes to counties' tax collection and appeals processes.

Richardson said Payne has a right to poll taxpayers, though he feels she's undermining the integrity of the process. If the system is rigged in favor of the county, he asked, why are commissioners fearful that this year's high volume of appeals might worsen the deficit?

"Their organization's issue is membership," Richardson said, "and the way to generate members is through sensationalism."

Fulton has 13 three-member Equalization boards, with members trained by the state Department of Revenue. They're part of the second level of the appeals process.

If a taxpayer disagrees with the value assigned by the Board of Assessors' appraisers, which is used to calculate tax bills, they have a choice of appealing to the Board of Equalization, going into binding arbitration or going before a hearing officer if their property is valued at $1 million or more with no homestead exemption. Beyond that, they can appeal to Superior Court.

Historically swamped, the boards' volume will increase significantly in coming months. With home values plummeting and Rogers' law requiring that all property owners be sent tax notices, Fulton has seen a record 35,742 appeals this year, compared with about 21,000 in 2010.

Richardson said the boards constantly lower values, but often not as much as taxpayers would like.

"To say that board members are just rubber stamping the tax assessors, that's just not true," he said.

County records show that of the first 9,500 appeals handled by the Board of Equalization from 2009, the properties’ cumulative $18.2 billion value was lowered 11.5 percent. Of the first 2,600 handled from 2010, the cumulative $2.7 billion value was lowered 14 percent.

Chad Masri, managing partner of a real estate investment group that owns about 60 properties in Fulton, said his experiences with the Board of Equalization were so bad, he's not going back. Since being denied reductions in two hearings in June, he's skipped nine hearings and plans to skip five more, taking all his cases to Superior Court.

In the first hearing, he tried in vain to have the 2010 value of a rental house Grant Street, located in southeast Atlanta near the federal prison, lowered from $144,100 to about $60,000. His group paid $61,000 for it in 2009 and he argued that the neighborhood is full of boarded-up, graffiti-ridden homes.

In the second hearing, he asked to have a house on Ormond Street, near Turner Field, lowered from $92,700 to $50,000, showing the board two dozen comparable sales for less than that. The board sided with the county, he said.

"It went from dumb to dumber," Masri said. "It's a complete waste of time. It's time consuming. It's stressful. They are not equipped to make these decisions."