Once homeowners receive their property assessments, they have 45 days to appeal if they think the values are too high. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Taxpayers may gain new rights in assessment disputes

House Bill 202, approved in 2015, was dubbed a “Christmas tree bill” because of last-minute additions handing out tax breaks to a favored few. But the legislation also had gifts for property owners who dispute assessments.

The bill reduces or eliminates some fees, sets up clearer time lines and provides property owners with more rights in the appeal process.

One provision, for example, provides that taxpayers won’t be charged interest on the unpaid balance of their property taxes while an appeal is pending. As it stands now, taxpayers have to pay interest if the final value shows more taxes are due.

Rep. Brett Harrell, R-Snellville, one of the sponsors, speaks from experience on this provision, having been billed $11.13 in interest on his tax bill. “The taxpayer had no ability to impact the time it would take…to reach the conclusion,” Harrell said. “For me, $11.13 was not a significant amount of money, but it was the principle of the thing. I had no control.”

Here’s how you may benefit:

  • You can have the board of assessors consider a certified appraisal you have had done by a real property appraiser, if it was performed not later than nine months before the assessment date. Boards haven’t faced that requirement up to now. “This is another strengthening of the taxpayer’s ability to make an argument on their value by securing an appraisal by a reputable person,” Harrell said.
  • If you file an appeal, you will have the right to interview an employee or officer of the board of tax assessors regarding the valuation of your property. You have to request the interview in writing, and it must be granted within a maximum of 60 days.
  • You will have the right to record interviews with county officers or employees who are authorized to discuss assessments and to record proceedings before the board of equalization or any hearing officer. You have to provide the equipment and pay the costs, though.
  • On the appeal form, you will need to list your assertion of the property value, but you can change it later by submitting written evidence to the board of assessors.
  • The county has 180 days after receiving your notice of appeal to review it and notify you of any corrections or changes. If the board of assessors doesn’t act in that time, the valuation you have submitted becomes the assessed fair market value for the tax year under appeal. One catch: Counties get an additional 180 days if the number of appeals exceeds 3 percent of the total parcels or the value of parcels exceeds 3 percent of the tax digest. The deadline had been in the law before, but it had no teeth, said Stephen D. White, director of the Cobb County Tax Assessor’s Office. “Now if a county doesn’t meet that deadline, there will be consequences,” he said.
  • Binding arbitration as an appeal route is replaced with nonbinding arbitration and the fees are eliminated. The board of tax assessors has the burden of proving its opinion of value by a preponderance of evidence. You or the board of tax assessors may appeal to superior court.
  • The fee for appealing an assessment to superior court is reduced to $25.
  • If you win your appeal at the board of equalization, your assessment cannot be increased during the next two successive years. This provision clears up a gray area in the law, White said. There are a couple important provisions though: The freeze applies so long as taxpayers or their representatives showed up as scheduled hearings or provided written evidence supporting the taxpayer’s opinion of value. And if a taxpayer files another appeal during the two successive years, or if substantial additions are made to the property, the freeze is lifted and the assessment could go up or down.

“If they (taxpayers) are successful, they have the two years’ freeze so there is no opportunity for the assessor to come right back the next year and make them jump through the hoops again,” Harrell said.

Not all the provisions benefit property owners, said R.J. Morris, a self-described Georgia property tax activist. For example, he points to the requirement for a settlement conference before an appeal goes to superior court. Morris said that drags out the appeal process and benefits counties, which already have had two chances to prevail. He is also concerned that the bill doesn't require counties to use certified mail to notify property owners of board of equalization hearings.

But Morris said the bill offers a big benefit that may have been unintended: Property owners may be able to skip over the board of assessors and speed up their appeals. They do this by notifying the board of assessors that they are choosing non-binding arbitration. Then, once the board acknowledges receiving that notice, instead of providing the required certified appraisal, property owners can elect to have the appeal immediately forwarded to the board of equalization. "This is a huge advantage for the property taxpayer," Morris said. "The taxpayer can no longer be put off for a year or more."

Added on to the overhaul bill were tax breaks for selected special interests. They included breaks for Mercedes-Benz workers who lease cars and for a private Baptist school, Truett-McConnell College, in Cleveland, Ga., for purchases of construction materials.

What are keys to winning appeals of your property values? At MyAJC.com you can find tips, help understanding assessment and appeal forms and answers to other questions you might have about the rights of property owners.

» AJC ANSWERS: Click here to become an expert problem solver and community watchdog 

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