By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great local journalism.
Headaches for homeowners
Tax assessments come at 'worst economic time'
purcell 2 jd
The Purcell home features several passive solar features, including this wall of windows. - photo by Jim Dean

If your property value increased this year, you're not alone.

About 58,000 Forsyth County homeowners received a notice from the tax assessor's office this spring and just 13,000 of those were for decreases.

"I'm concerned that they reassessed my house and raised the value at a time when the market's really going down," said homeowner Rob Chumley. "The value of my home has truly gone down."

Gila Hoover's property value has gone up more than $120,000 since she moved in six years ago. And, she noted, "I don't think I could sell it for that right now."

"I think it would be a fair value if it had been issued back when things were going good," she said. "But I know across the state, we're looking at a 10 to 20 percent value reduction. I do think that it is out of line."

The culprit appears to be bad timing, with the county introducing a new computer system at the same time the housing market hit a slump.

"It just happened to hit at the worst economic time," said Mary Kirkpatrick, the county's chief tax appraiser. "But we had to do it sometime, and things haven't gotten better.

"Knowing where the economy is now, it probably was the wise decision to do it when we did."

Appeals process

The tax assessor's office has successfully explained the increase to some homeowners, but there still are thousands of taxpayers, many of them unhappy, who realized an increase and want to know why.

A record number of appeals were filed during the 45-day window after May's mailing, Kirkpatrick said. But of the 3,312 appeals filed, many have since been withdrawn. On Thursday alone, about 300 were dropped.

"A lot of folks will file the appeal because they're upset when they get the notice. They're angry," she said. "You know, nobody likes to pay taxes.

"I think that once they looked at what really was happening, they said, 'I don't really have grounds for an appeal.' And they withdraw."

Some appeals have been settled and properties reappraised. But for the most part, Kirkpatrick said, the property value increases were correct.

"Are we 100 percent accurate? No, we're human," she said. "That's why we send an assessment notice and encourage you to appeal it."

The reason 58,000 of the office's 79,000 parcels received notices was due to a change in computer software used to determine the assessments.

In 2005, the department decided to change from the archaic Cott Systems to Integrated Assessment Systems software, used by both Fulton and Cobb counties.

The Cott system had been in place for about 25 years. For the past four years it had been operating with no customer support, no warranty and no backup, as the product was sold to a separate software vendor.

"We were in a position we had to do something," Kirkpatrick said. "We didn't do this to just spend the taxpayers' money or anything else. We did this because we had to. We were sitting in a very, very precarious situation."

The new software, Kirkpatrick said, has been much more efficient.

In 2005, the department began converting to the new system and in 2007 it was implemented.

If there was a problem, she said, it would have been evident last year. But only about 670 appeals, which is normal, were submitted in 2007.

Not so fast

The increases may not have been as sudden as they first seemed to property owners.

What happened, Kirkpatrick said, was as the properties were entered into the new system, values were "slightly different" from the previous system.

She said the differences, at most, were up to 3 percent for commercial and 5 percent for residential properties.

Many of the new values had increased, she said, but until "we were sure everything was good, we left what we call the override values" from the old system.

If, for example, a property was valued at $200,000 under the old system but $203,000 under the new system, the override value would still be $200,000.

"The problem we ran into after the first year was that ... the values would not match what was on folks' tax bill, because we left the override values from the old system in place," she said.

"In 2008, we decided it created so much confusion with taxpayers that would get a record that didn't match what they were billed with, so we decided to take all the overrides off."

While one third of the county's properties are assessed annually, only a portion of May's notifications were due to the reassessments.

Many of the notifications informing homeowners of an increase resulted from removing the overrides.
Kirkpatrick said the reassessment process is "really where the market takes us," with properties picked almost at random.

"You're going to have to go to places that develop and change," she said. "There's no geographic tone to that, it's really market driven."

For example, Kirkpatrick said, some people may get hit year after year, while others may fly under the radar for several years.

Gerry Purcell has been hit several times. One of the more vocal taxpayers, he was tapped with the override change the year after his property received a 35 percent increase.

Purcell appealed the 35 percent increase, which was later reduced to 28 percent.

"This year, I received another increase," he said. "In the scheme of things, its only another couple of percentage points. That doesn't really correlate with where the market is."

Purcell started talking to others in his small neighborhood and eventually throughout the county.

He said from the people he's talked with, those hit the hardest have been those who aren't in subdivisions and people with homes around the lake.

"There were areas that went up that people didn't expect to go up, like the lake," Kirkpatrick said.

"Lake properties are those that typically draw folks that want to live on the water, and will pay whatever they can afford to pay. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to it."

A decline may follow

Because assessments are based on the previous year's figures, in this case 2007, they don't necessarily reflect the current economic downturn.

As the economy has continued to decline over the past seven months, however, the changes likely will be reflected in next year's assessments.

In Forsyth County, though, Kirkpatrick said the decline is nowhere near the rest of the state or nation.

Forsyth and Fayette counties faired the best in the state in terms of the fewest foreclosures and drops in value, she said.

"People think we're in a total state of devastation," she said. "I'm not really sure that's occurring as strong in Forsyth County. I'm not going to deny it's occurring at some extent, but ... there's a little more stability in this county."

Because the increases hit during one of the worst economic times in years, Kirkpatrick said, more people are looking to blame the system.

But, she said, there are no problems with the new system and her staff is willing to sit down with any taxpayer to explain the changes directly.

It is too late to appeal changes this year, but there is a window to appeal any changes before next year's values are locked in.

"If they have been unhappy with what has happened this year, they can come in between January and April 1 and file a return with us," she said. "Because if by chance we don't reappraise their area next year, they won't get a notice.

"That causes the board to have to review the parcel and send another notice next year, and that opens the door to generate a notice for them to appeal next year. It won't reimburse them this year, but they can do something for next year."