More than 850 people already have appealed a city assessment of their home or property, and local attorney Zane Leiden is among them.
He says he bought his Summerville-area house on Windsor Court just 1 1/2 years ago for about 32 percent less than the appraised value he received in the mail earlier this month. That his home's price could escalate that much in slightly more than a year is unreasonable, he said.
Mr. Leiden's appeal, which he filed in the Richmond County Tax Assessor's office earlier this month, is still pending, as are hundreds more. But there's still plenty of time - 15 business days - for other complaints to be filed. The deadline to appeal is Monday, Sept. 16.
The owners of more than 54,000 homes and properties throughout Richmond County saw their taxable values increase this year.
Assessment notices, which were mailed out Aug. 2, were the first since 1999 to reflect any kind of increase, and it has meant skyrocketing values for thousands of homeowners. Many are looking at increases ranging from 3 percent in south Augusta to more than 35 percent on the Hill.
"If there was some rhyme or reason to it," Mr. Leiden said, he might not have been so quick to appeal.
But, in addition to thinking his appraisal is erroneous, he says he and many of his friends and neighbors think the countywide revaluation is simply a way for the government to get more money.
"The city is going to have a budget shortfall, so instead of raising everybody's taxes, it's an easy shortcut to say everybody's property is worth more," Mr. Leiden said. "I think a lot of people feel that way."
Tax officials have said the property values escalated so much this year mainly because of computer equipment that was not Y2K compliant, which left the city's property values essentially frozen for three years. Some pieces of south Augusta property, for example, were valued at $350 an acre, which is an extremely low price, Richmond County Chief Appraiser Sonny Reece said. That property is now appraised at $1,200 an acre, he said.
Mr. Reece said he has heard from many people who say they believe the revaluation has been manufactured by the local government to create a windfall in property tax collections.
But that isn't possible, he said.
"I'm not getting any pressure from the commission to do this. My pressure is coming from the state Department of Revenue," Mr. Reece said.
STATE LAW requires that all properties be assessed at 100 percent of market value - what they would sell for.
Every three years, the state audits the city to ensure that all properties are appraised at 100 percent of market value and assessed at 40 percent of that value. If, during that audit, the state Department of Revenue determines that properties are selling for less than 38 percent of their appraised value or more than 42 percent above their appraised value, the government could be fined.
Based on the 2001 countywide digest, Augusta's fine would be $458,887, the tax assessor's office reports.
But what many people don't realize, tax officials say, is that the only way the city can profit more from property taxes is to raise the mill rate.
In 1999, the state Legislature passed the Taxpayer Bill of Rights specifically to keep cities from raising money by increasing property values. The bill requires local governments to offset any increases in their tax digests by rolling back - or lowering - millage, the number of mills charged per dollar of property value. A mill is one-tenth of a cent.
The rollback applies to city, state and school board taxes. It reduces the taxation rate for every property owner - even those whose assessed values didn't increase.
That tax relief is reduced, however, if cities or school boards approve higher millage. And that's what has many people in Augusta worried.
Commissioners have already approved a city budget that includes a 1.735-mill increase.
The mill rate has not been approved, but the money already is being spent on increased costs in the city's law enforcement fund. It is paying, in large part, for more and better-paid Richmond County sheriff's deputies.
The Taxpayer Bill of Rights allows counties to collect more taxes only after they hold three public hearings to increase millage, Mr. Reece said.
"It's so local government can't make any more money," Mr. Reece said, at least not without taxpayers knowing about it.
The commission is expected to set the millage in early fall and will have to hold the required public hearings.
STATE OFFICIALS, including Sen. Don Cheeks, D-Augusta, have said Augusta is not breaking the law, but they said it is breaking the spirit of the law with the millage increase.
The 2002 budget was set by the deadline of Dec. 31, seven months before the new revaluation was complete.
"I forecast what I think the digest for the next year is going to be," Mr. Reece said, and commissioners use that to plan the budget.
But there is not a direct relationship between the budget and the revaluation process, he said.
West Augusta homeowner Fred Sinks, who is appealing his assessment, disagrees.
"That's all it's about, anyway, giving it to the city or the county."
The proposed millage increase is expected to raise the tax bill on a $100,000 home with homestead exemption by $60.73.
"I think we're going to get a large number of appeals because people don't want to pay taxes," Mr. Reece said.
But they will need better, more concrete reasons to win their appeal and have their assessed values reduced.
The law provides three categories for appeals: a lack of uniformity with values in the surrounding area; a lack of taxability because of condemnation or nonprofit status; or an erroneous value due to damage or dilapidation.
For example, Mr. Reece said a woman appealing her assessment explained to him that her heat and air conditioning were 25 years old and would cost at least $2,500 to $3,000 to replace. That reduces the value of her property.
"These are things we don't know," he said. "I have to presume you've maintained your property."
ANYONE CONSIDERING an appeal of their home's value just because of concerns about taxes may want to rethink that move, Mr. Reece said.
Here's why: This year's assessments were based almost entirely on 2001 home and property sales - not on-site visits by tax appraisers. The county was broken down into 49 neighborhoods, and, based on an audit of the sale prices in those areas, values were increased on a sliding scale.
But unlike the revaluation, almost every appeal gets an on-site visit by a county appraiser. Any unrecorded additions or improvements that went unnoticed during the revaluation will be accounted for and figured into the appeal.
So, instead of reducing the assessment, the appeal could have the opposite effect.
"We might not have the right information on a piece of property, or we may have wrong information on an addition or an enclosed garage that we didn't know about," Mr. Reece said.
Even if a protest is denied, there are other factors that can lower the final tax bill for many property owners.
Any home that is occupied by its owner is entitled to a homestead exemption - a discount that lowers the ad valorem tax liability on the home by $5,000 of its assessed value.
Also, the Richmond County Board of Education voted to lower the school tax 0.268 mills to 20.28 mills this year, a decrease that equates to $9.38 less in taxes annually on a $100,000 home with homestead exemption.
How does the property value increase in your area measure up to those in other parts of town? Here is a sample of average value increases broken down by neighborhood:
Source: Richmond County Tax Appraisal Office
Reach Heidi Coryell Williams at (706) 823-3215 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
|BY THE NUMBERS|
54,022: The number of revaluation notices mailed to local property owners
18,331: The number of Augusta properties that were not reassessed this year
$15,078.16: The amount of money spent on postage to mail revaluation notices
$458,887: The estimated fine that the Department of Revenue would levy on the county this year if a revaluation were not done
850: The number of assessment appeals already filed in the tax appraiser's office
75 PERCENT: The portion of your property taxes that goes to schools
24 PERCENT: The portion of your property taxes that goes to city government
1 PERCENT: The portion of your property taxes that goes to state government
15: The number of business days left to appeal a revaluation