Originally created 05/17/99

Georgia residents take action in property tax fight



ATLANTA -- After years of griping about how Fulton County spent tax money, the final straw for homeowners came when they began receiving their property reappraisal notices in the mail.

The Taj Mahal -- the critics' nickname for the spacious, palm-tree-bedecked county office building -- was one thing. But appraisals that sent the taxable value of homes up an average of 50 percent in 1991 were more than Mitch Skandalakis and thousands of other Atlanta-area residents could stand.

They started Rollback Increase of Taxes, filed a lawsuit, began a petition drive to recall the county commission chairman and became the model for property-tax revolt movements across Georgia.

"What they discovered is you can make some real political hay by getting beyond individuals going in and protesting their assessments," said Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia. "The Skandalakis effort was one of the first ones to attack property taxes as ultimately being a redistribution (of wealth)."

The property-tax battle launched the political career of Mr. Skandalakis, who went on to become a state lawmaker, chairman of the Fulton County Commission and the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor in 1998. The issue helped put Roy Barnes in the Governor's Mansion.

And now, groups similar to RIOT are active in areas such as Savannah, fighting back-door tax increases from city, county and school officials who need more money but look to property reappraisals rather that millage increases to meet their needs.

"The main thrust of our group is not to get rid of taxes altogether," said Jeffrey Rayno, vice president of Stop Taxing Our People in Chatham County. "We realize you have to have taxes for essential services.

"Most people don't mind paying taxes, but they'd like to see some bang for the buck."

Thanks to a more-than-willing new governor, those groups have more to cheer about now than perhaps ever before.

Under legislation Mr. Barnes signed into law last month, the homestead exemption will in effect double, and local city councils, school boards and county commissions will have to roll back millage rates to match increases in property assessments.

Local governments now must hold three public meetings before raising the tax rate. Homeowners will have new rights when they fight assessment increases and be able to recover legal fees in some cases.

Chatham County residents got an extra measure of protection from local lawmakers. The Chatham County legislation -- if approved by voters in 2000 -- would raise homestead exemptions to match an increase in property values.

It works similar to legislation passed earlier by Columbus lawmakers.

A rising anger of homeowners over their property tax bills played into Mr. Barnes' hands last year during the race for governor.

The Republican nominee for governor, Guy Millner, claimed car tag taxes were the most hated assessment in the state and vowed to ax them.

Mr. Barnes needed something to counteract Mr. Millner's promise and property taxes seemed the best bet. Besides, Mr. Barnes didn't like property taxes any more than the next Georgian.

"Over the years, I have always believed that property taxes fall more disproportionately on folks than any other tax," Mr. Barnes said. "When Guy came out and said that the automobile tax was the most hated tax, I knew it was not the one I hated the most."

Mr. Barnes disputed the notion Republicans pitched throughout the 1999 legislative session that he was merely coming around to their way of thinking.

Republicans had been promoting legislation like Mr. Barnes' Taxpayer's Bill of Rights for years.

"That doesn't bother me. I don't think there is a patent on ideas," the governor said. "This is something we talked about in the 1970s. This is something I have been talking about before there were Republicans."

Mr. Barnes has lived virtually his entire life in Cobb County, Atlanta's original white-flight suburb, where property taxes have been fought over for decades. He represented the county in the Georgia General Assembly for more than 20 years.

Mr. Skandalakis and state Rep. Burke Day, R-Tybee Island, were among Republicans who pushed property-tax reform in the 1990s without success because they didn't have the political muscle to persuade a Democrat-controlled General Assembly.

"Barnes got elected. It's a great issue. It's a fair issue and it helps taxpayers," Mr. Skandalakis said. "I don't begrudge him that."

Mr. Day thought Mr. Millner made a mistake by pitching the car tax plan.

"He refused to listen to hordes of us out in the field who listened to constituents daily," Mr. Day said. "I never believed his assertion that the car tax was the most hated tax.

"Unlike arbitrary taxes on your home, you can manage auto costs, deferring maintenance, purchases, etc.," he added. "But when the government says, `it's pay me for your home or else,' you pay it or lose it. People react with outrage or sheer fear."

That's what helped feed the revolt in Fulton County.

"The property they own, the house, is the single most important asset in their lives and they don't want to lose it," Mr. Skandalakis said. "In Fulton County, there were people with homes that had been in their families for generations. They could not pay their taxes and they had to sell.

"Most Georgians don't have a lot of assets, but they have their homes."

On the other side of the debate are elected school board members and county commissioners who have had to deal with the political fallout and still provide services.

Anything that limits property tax revenue is particularly worrisome to school officials because they have few other sources of money available to pay for the education of more than 1.3 million children statewide.

State and federal governments pick up a little more than half the tab for public schools. Property taxes are the predominant way school officials fund the rest. Schools represent the largest user of property taxes in most counties.

"We are very nervous about this whole process," acknowledged Gary Ashley, director of the Georgia School Boards Association.

"The danger for schools is the property tax is probably more consistent than any other form of tax. From a practical standpoint, we need increased funding for education. We don't need to vacillate or decrease funding."

Despite those concerns, Mr. Barnes had no trouble convincing state lawmakers to go along with his plan because they too had been hearing from constituents about property taxes for years.

Reform supporters are sensitive to criticism that the movement is largely tied to wealthy property owners who only want to cut their own hefty tax bills.

"It crosses the social-economic spectrum," Mr. Rayno said. "It's old folks. It's the middle class. Mostly, it's older people who are concerned about being knocked out of their homes."

Mr. Barnes knew when he developed his property-tax plan that everyone had to benefit more or less equally.

Under Mr. Millner's car-tax proposal, Georgians with the most expensive cars would get the biggest break. That strengthened Mr. Barnes' portrayal of Mr. Millner as a multimillionaire out of touch with the average Georgian.

Everyone gets the same tax break under Mr. Barnes' homestead exemption increase.

"I knew it couldn't be sold publicly if it allowed the folks with the mansions to get the biggest break," Mr. Barnes said.

James Salzer is based in Atlanta and can be reached at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.