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Another fine mess for Fulton County

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The tax system in Fulton County is broken, that is what everyone is saying. The question is what are we going to do about it, and who’s going to do it?

Property owners are facing double-digit tax increases and the only advice these taxpayers get is to appeal their assessment. It’s like being judged guilty until proven innocent.

It is past time to fix this Fine Mess we call a tax system. It would possibly be forgivable if the new assessments had some sort of consistency.

At a taxpayer town hall meeting at Johns Creek High School led by Fulton Commissioner Liz Hausmann, we heard homeowners, one after another, come to tell how their assessment made no sense.

Just a few of the complaints were:

• Smaller homes in the same subdivision appraised higher than larger neighboring homes.

• Actual dimensions of homes upon which assessments are based don’t match reality. One homeowner appealed his last assessment to get the correct dimensions on the tax rolls. His latest assessment showed the old, bad numbers had returned.

• One couple’s townhome was appraised at thousands more than the unit next door with which it shared a wall. Same unit, same dimensions different tax bill. Go figure.

The examples go on. With some 320,000 parcels to appraise it is a daunting task. What is clear is not all properties are visited. So they are swept up in batches and are assigned what is, from all available evidence, the best “guesstiment” the county can come up with.

Exacerbating the already frustrating process is that the previous assessors did not keep up with the 100 percent fair market value demanded by state law. So the county is trying to play catch-up in this round of assessments.

The result is a hardship on many homeowners and outright disaster to some who are on fixed incomes and simply don’t have the money to pay those tax hikes.

What is not clear to me is why force counties to attain this mystery number known as 100 percent of fair market value. State law requires it, but the cold hard reality is as properties age their true value becomes more fuzzy.

When new developments come in that raise the aggregate values, there is no law that says older properties always rise accordingly. Often they do but sometimes they don’t.

Either way, there is a breaking point for every homeowner where taxes outstrip the vagaries of a career, college tuition, health and the economy.

While real estate has bounced back from the recession, people haven’t always kept up. But they did keep up their house payments. Why? Because it is their home, their hedge against inflation and for many it is their single biggest investment in their own future.

That is until soaring reassessments comes along and sock them in the kisser.

Add to that a Board of Assessors that cannot deliver a rational tax digest. And it may be that no one can understand the current system. Fulton County is really three counties cobbled together in the 1930s. North Fulton, Atlanta and South Fulton contain a welter of cold and hot spots for tax appraising, and a one-size-fits-all system has not worked in the two decades I have been covering the beat.

What kind of government turns a blind eye to the middle class? Where are our legislators who passed the 100 percent law? This is on you. You created this benighted system. It is up to you to fix it. Some annual caps would be a nice start.

How about some exemptions for the over-65ers, the medically disabled and, above all, a waiver of the school tax for senior citizens. That’s half the homeowner tax right there.

A home is perhaps one’s most basic and precious possession. The last thing a government should do is strip that away from a family. Yet that is what is happening amid one of Atlanta’s periodic real estate booms.

Elected officials need to sit up and take notice – and not just to pass the buck, either. Let’s see some leaders come forward with real solutions and not a shrug of the shoulders. And it begins with fair appraisals.


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