The Forsyth County Tax Assessor’s Office has begun the search for those claiming multiple homestead exemptions, but the process has not gone as smoothly as expected.
“Things are happening we didn’t anticipate,” said Mary Kirkpatrick, chief appraiser.
The office recently hired Tax Management Associates to find homeowners who were claiming a homestead exemption in Forsyth and elsewhere. Homeowners are allowed only one tax exemption.
So far, 20 letters have been sent to homeowners filing two or more exemptions, and nearly all of them have appealed, according to Kirkpatrick.
“I only had two that didn’t appeal,” she said.
According to the tax assessor’s office, about 42,000 county residents receive a homestead exemption.
Kirkpatrick said about 50 of those will receive letters reporting multiple filings.
As the company’s investigation continues, the search will spread out beyond Georgia into neighboring states and eventually all 50.
Most of the first 20 alleged violators were residents who own a home both in Forsyth and Fulton counties, Kirkpatrick said.
After receiving the letter, some residents rushed to pay what they owed in Fulton County first, she added.
“The taxpayers are looking for where they get the best benefit and running and paying it there before they come here,” she said. “Our original objective would have been that because we did the audit, they would pay this county back.”
Kirkpatrick said the company, which charges a 25 percent fee per case, only collects when Forsyth County collects its back taxes. So if another county benefits, it’s at no cost to Forsyth, she said.
Kirkpatrick said there have also been some unusual cases, like a same-sex couple who were legally married in another state. Both own property with homestead exemptions, which for a married couple would be illegal. But because Georgia doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage, Kirkpatrick said technically what they’re doing is legal.
The office is still looking into some of the appeals filed, but Kirkpatrick said she’s not optimistic.
“We can’t tax them twice,” she said.
If they pay in another county, the only way Forsyth could collect is to file fraud charges against the homeowner.
“And fraud is a terribly, terribly hard thing to prove,” she said. “Yes, there are people who do this intentionally. There are people who don’t. But proving the difference between those two groups is easier said than done.”
Kirkpatrick is hopeful that people who own a home on the lake might bring in some revenue, as those homes are often second homes which do not qualify for the exemption.
But even if this process doesn’t recoup money for the county, it’s still a benefit, she said.
“The sad part is I don’t know how much money any of us are going to make by the time we’re finished with this, but in the end, the good thing that comes out of it is that a lot of this is going to get cleaned up and people will be paying what they’re supposed to where they’re supposed to,” Kirkpatrick said.
“It’s not right for people to be claiming homestead here if they don’t deserve it,” she said. “The other taxpayers here are picking up the burden and we want to eliminate that burden on the taxpayers who are doing things properly.”