Homeowners might not be smiling when new aerial photos of their unreported swimming pools, garages and other additions drive their property tax bills higher this year.
But the increases, only an informed projection by Chief Appraiser Alveno Ross at this point, are hoped by some Augusta commissioners to be the answer to filling a 2012 budget shortfall slated to end city programs and eliminate jobs.
The project has been several years in the making. Augusta has had a contract with Pictometry International, which shoots images by airplane, since 2008.
Only this year, however, has the assessor’s office been able to accurately compare a sequence of the images to detect the yet-untaxed additions, Ross said.
The technology had to be adopted after 2010 changes in Georgia law began requiring annual review of all property values. The office’s cost to send an appraiser out to each of the more than 80,000 parcels in Augusta-Richmond County would have been $3.2 million, he said.
Now, it can compare the highly accurate images, made from four directions, and discern changes at greater than 99 percent accuracy, Ross said.
Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle, a flooring contractor, said he wasn’t surprised that some of his contractor colleagues occasionally neglect to obtain the building permits that typically alert the tax assessor’s office to the taxable additions. It happened to him several years ago.
“I thought my pool builder pulled a permit,” said Guilfoyle, who lives in Hephzibah. “You can do garages, a lot of stuff out here and it doesn’t get picked up.”
Limited resources and staff allowed some additions to sit untaxed for years, until now.
A preliminary sweep of only 239 parcels revealed unreported property valued at some $1.5 million, and subsequent comparisons continued to show a net increase in parcels’ total value, prompting Ross’ office to project a level of digest growth that if taxed, will generate at least $1.5 million in new taxes this year.
While Commissioner Corey Johnson proposed using the revenue to fill the budget gap, other commissioners including Guilfoyle and Jerry Brigham say the city shouldn’t budget money that’s not in the bank. Brigham called it “imaginary dollars” during budget discussions.
Only recently was server space allocated to carry the enormous data sets and software installed to compare the images, but Ross said the comparisons are now complete and the added value is there, Ross said.
Even if all the changes aren’t approved and incorporated into the property tax digest due Aug. 1 in Atlanta, Ross said he expects enough of them to grow the digest significantly.
“This is a first-time engagement; it gets smoother as it progresses out in the system,” he said. “We’ll give it our very best shot to max out our discovery in 2012 and the base of it we’ll pick up in 2013.”
The changes don’t reflect inflationary growth – that is, property value increases that could trigger a required roll-back in the millage rate. They are simply added value, Ross said.
The office isn’t out to catch hidden revenue; rather, it continuously strives for accurate valuations, he said.
“Let me emphasize the charge to the board of assessors is to have accurate parcel data,” Ross said, noting instances where the imagery detects structures that no longer are present.
Finance Director Donna Williams, who works closely with the budgeting process but isn’t involved in assessing property or collecting taxes, said she is “hopeful” the additions are realized.
“I have no doubt that there is property out there that is not on the tax rolls,” Williams said. The question is “is there a big enough window of time to be able to get the benefits of the project on the digest,” she said.
Once approved, the digest’s valuations are used by Tax Commissioner Steven Kendrick to bill property owners.
The commission is expected to review decisions about cutting the budget or funding the shortfall at a February retreat.