Originally created 03/02/00

Barnes to review audit results

ATLANTA -- Chatham County tax officials were giving themselves preferential assessments, were slow to upgrade computer systems and failed to follow state guidelines for ensuring fair treatment of property owners, according to an audit released Wednesday by the state.

Officials from the Georgia Department of Revenue who conducted the audit declined to say there was evidence of criminal wrongdoing. They left Gov. Roy Barnes to decide if their findings should be referred to Attorney General Thurbert Baker for possible prosecution.

"Perhaps someone has some explaining to do," said Joe Young, Mr. Barnes' legal aide.

But Mr. Young said Mr. Barnes would leave the issue to Chatham County officials and taxpayers now that the report is in their hands.

The most vocal property-owners group in Chatham has already called for county commissioners to make personnel changes in the assessing department. For now, they are pleased to read the state report.

"I was absolutely delighted that they told the truth in it," said Christina Taylor, president of Stop Taxing Our People. "We thought they would whitewash it."

The Department of Revenue conducted the audit last year at Mr. Barnes' request to determine if counties had rushed valuation increases before the Jan. 1 effective date of the Taxpayers Bill of Rights.

The new law requires local governments to roll back millage when inflation causes property valuations to increase, or three public hearings must be held before a vote on raising the millage.

A cursory look at all 159 counties raised suspicions about Chatham, said Larry Griggers, director of the department's Property Tax Division. He sent five auditors -- half of his audit staff -- to Savannah for days.

Although auditors eventually concluded Chatham officials did not try to skirt the new law, they uncovered other irregularities. Acting on tips from the public, auditors extended the deadline for giving the report to Mr. Barnes to explore every lead.

The report lists three conclusions:

"Chatham's appraisers were not following a fair and uniform approach in selecting neighborhoods for revaluations. Some properties were updated annually while others were not reviewed for years.

"Chatham's appraisers were taking too long converting all the properties to the new computer-assisted appraisal system (CAMA) installed in 1993. Non-CAMA properties were not updated as frequently as CAMA properties, creating an unfair tax advantage for non-CAMA property owners.

"Certain Chatham County officials were giving preferential assessments to their own property."

Neighborhoods where members of the assessors board and the equalization board owned property had a greater percentage of improperly assessed parcels than the county as a whole. Those neighborhoods, accounting for about 30 percent of the county's tax digest, were assigned to the old computer system and so their valuations were out of date.

That computer upgrade has taken twice as long as similar improvements in other counties, Mr. Griggers said.

"We found that to be unusual," he said.

Chatham County Chief Appraiser Gary Udinsky told auditors the neighborhoods were assigned to the new computer system according to need, Mr. Griggers said, meaning areas most out of synchronization with actual market valuations would be converted first.

"But we didn't find that necessarily to be substantiated by the facts we observed," Mr. Griggers said.

The Department of Revenue found Chatham assessors used a practice in the historic district and along the Savannah River waterfront called "chasing sales" that makes it hard for the state to monitor improper assessments during annual reviews. In essence, assessors raise the valuations of houses in the district when they are sold, but don't adjust the values of neighboring parcels at the same time as required by state law.

Mr. Griggers promised state officials would be on guard against sales chasing when reviewing Chatham's digest in the future.

"We think the Taxpayers Bill of Rights is going to prevent some of the things that we did find in Chatham County," Mr. Griggers said.

Reach Walter C. Jones at (404) 589-8424.


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