Property owners could get relief with reform bill

Tax assessment methods examined
Chip Rogers: Senate Majority Leader has proposed 40 changes to the ways counties put value on properties.

ATLANTA --- Property owners who have seen their tax assessments remain higher than current values are the subject of legislation introduced Monday designed to provide relief by overhauling the way counties determine how to tax real estate.


Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers said he is sponsoring Senate Bill 346 in response to a series of homeowners who testified last year about the loss in market value brought about by the recession that wasn't reflected in their tax assessments. The procedures for tax valuation haven't been updated in decades.

"It seems just about every portion of the system is weighted against the taxpayer," he said.

The lengthy proposal would make 40 substantive changes in how counties put a value on residential and commercial properties. And it aims to make appeals easier by allowing them all year and requiring a unanimous vote of the local board of equalization to raise an assessed value.

Because property taxes are the main funding source for most cities, counties and school systems, those that don't cut their spending or raise their millage rates fast enough to adjust to the new assessments could face major budget shortfalls.

Asked whether he was worried about the impact on local governments, Rogers said inflated assessments make property owners pay more than they legally owe.

"We have to look at this from the standpoint of the taxpayer," he said. "For a state to stand for (inflated assessments to prevent budget cutting) is just wrong."

Clint Mueller, the legislative director for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, predicted local governments were going to experience steep revenue declines even without Rogers' bill.

His organization and others representing local governments are meeting with Rogers to make sure the new procedures don't increase the cost of assessing.

"Anything that we do has to be done with the money of the taxpayers in mind," he said.

Even if the measure becomes law, tax bills still will be based on assessments that are about two years old, according to Mueller.

The legislation doesn't address the lag between gathering sufficient data, mailing assessment notices with time for appeals and the date the actual tax bills are sent.

Tax bills sent last fall were based on 2008 prices, which were still rising for most of the year. Notices sent at the end of this year will begin reflecting the declines triggered by the recession.

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle hailed Rogers' proposal as an overdue, initial effort.

"Today we are taking the first step to bring real changes and our goal is simple: increased transparency and fairness to a system that is broken," Cagle said.