When people look up at one of the many cellphone towers around Augusta, they might see only a tall structure of steel, cables and wires.
Alveno Ross sees a puzzle he intends to solve.
Ross, the chief appraiser for Augusta-Richmond County, has three questions he wants answered: Who owns it? How many more are out there? Most important: How much is it all worth?
Those answers remain elusive, however, while Ross and other city officials work to create a comprehensive list of the city’s cell towers, which transmit conversations, texts, tweets, photos and other data across the area.
Determining the ownership and value of those vertical pieces of property is no simple task. This city isn’t even sure where some of them are.
“This is not as easy as a guy buys a lot and builds a house,” Ross said. “It is not that simple.”
That’s because in Georgia, as in many states, cell towers and their associated structures are not considered real estate, but business property. There are no deeds to record or to track.
Instead of a single owner or company at each location, cell tower sites are multilayered enterprises that include the landowner, the tower owner and often several “tenants” or wireless service providers that rent space on the structure.
“In the midst of this we have also discovered there is a fourth layer,” Ross said. “These are companies that perform a particular service for the service providers.”
Ross said his office must rely on the individual businesses to file returns on their properties each year, accounting for all the equipment at the sites they own or operate.
Those returns, however, might not include detailed information about each site or even the location of any particular tower, Ross said. He has no way to be certain of any return’s accuracy. He can’t say how much in tax revenue the city might be missing.
“That’s the big unknown,” he said. “It may be undervalued by as much as 50 percent.”
Other tax appraisers across the state also are struggling with the issue of properly assessing cell towers.
“I think I am in the same dilemma as anybody else,” said Dennis Lee, the chief appraiser of tiny Peach County, south of Macon.
Lee said the lack of information about each tower site makes assessing value and determining a fair amount of tax next to impossible. He has sought help from other chief appraisers but found that most have little insight into the issue.
“I called every county from Florida to Tennessee and asked them how they handle this, and only about two of them said they even addressed it,” he said.
The first problem is finding all the towers and antennas. Lee said his staff drove every road in the county seeking them out so he could place each tower on a parcel in his tax digest.
“For every cell tower, I have placed a $75,000 value for the site,” Lee said. That value is a special assessment that is attached to the property tax bills of each landowner with a tower. Lee said his reasoning for the assessment is that each tower brings in a hefty monthly income for the landowners – anywhere from $1,000 or more. There is no way of knowing exactly unless he sees a copy of each lease, something that landowners aren’t eager to share, he said.
Although the equipment at each site is worth thousands, Lee said, companies have a rapid depreciation schedule, which diminishes the taxable value each year. The more constant value is in the revenue stream from the tenants at each site, he said.
“My goal is to get every one of them and get the income and go from there,” he said.
A new problem
John Scott, the chief appraiser in Bulloch County and the executive director of the Georgia Association of Assessing Officials, said Lee’s approach is a valid one.
“The real value is in the income that they generate, and it is really difficult to get that information from the taxpayer,” he said.
Scott said the rapid growth of the industry has outpaced many local governments’ ability to keep track of the sites.
“It very difficult for those not inside that industry to keep up with it,” he said.
Ross said getting information on income will be key to getting a handle on the value of cell towers in Augusta. Determining where each tower is and who owns it is the first step in finding that information.
“We believe the primary source is going to be the compound owner,” he said. The Board of Assessors might have to use its power to subpoena property owners to find that out.
“We will ask them politely,” he said. “The compound owner knows whose equipment is on that tower.”
The challenge, however, is finding all the tower locations. The city doesn’t have a readily accessible list of each tower or antenna location and its owner.
“We’ve found we probably don’t have a good handle on this,” said George Patty, Augusta’s director of Planning and Development.
Patty said he has been working with Ross for a while trying to determine where all the sites are, but city records aren’t complete and aren’t easily researched when it comes to cell towers.
Patty said some companies have bypassed the permitting process when setting up antennas in some locations, such as on billboards or atop buildings.
“What we found was, a lot of them are happening under our radar,” he said. “They are required to get a permit, but we know that some have not done that.”
Building a map
The Information Technology department has a partial map of about 70 cell towers in the county, but it is far from complete. Another list, of 47 towers permitted since 2001, which was supplied by Planning and Development, had a few towers not included on the map, but others are still not accounted for.
One such tower stands in a secluded wooded area in south Augusta. The 48-foot tower is surrounded by a small fenced compound on a 174-acre tract about 900 feet from the nearest city road.
According to Federal Communications Commission records, the tower was constructed in 2006 and recently changed owners. It was among 2,300 towers in the United States and Central America acquired by SBA Communications in April.
City officials weren’t aware of the site until questioned about it by The Augusta Chronicle. Rob Sherman, of the Licensing and Inspection department, was able to find construction permits on an old computer system. He said many old records didn’t translate when the software was upgraded in 2009.
There are still more not on the city’s lists, including one on Gordon Highway near Highland Avenue. The 60-foot tower was constructed in March 2010 by Crown Castle Corp., another of the major tower companies, according to the FCC. Patty said the city doesn’t know how many more out there need to be found.
Even when officials do account for all the towers, there are still other issues with finding cell phone company equipment. More and more antennas are cropping up on rooftops and in less conspicuous locations. There is even one inside the steeple at First Baptist Church on Walton Way Extension, officials said.
There are also antennas on city property that the tax assessor isn’t fully aware of. Many are planted on top of Augusta’s water storage tanks, according to Utilities Director Tom Wiedmeier.
“We got a bunch of them,” Wiedmeier said. “We have contracts with most of the cellphone companies.”
Those eight water tanks with their 18 antennas bring in more than $212,000 in income to Augusta Utilities, officials said. In those cases, the income isn’t taxable, but the equipment is.
That’s just another part of the challenge that will make the valuation of cell towers a long-term project taking months to complete, Ross said.
“This is our first time going down this road,” he said. “We are learning things as we go.”