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Wheeler Citizens Question Tax Assessment Increases

Wheeler Citizens Question  Tax Assessment Increases
ASSESSMENTS CHALLENGED - From left, Wheeler County Chief Appraiser Rhonda Cason, Chairman of the Wheeler County Board of Assessors Martin Roberts, and Melzar Nye, president of Technical Appraisal Services of Georgia, Inc., in Macon, answer questions from citizens about recent county property assessments in a meeting in Alamo on July 20.Photo by Deborah Clark
Wheeler Citizens Question  Tax Assessment Increases
ASSESSMENTS CHALLENGED - From left, Wheeler County Chief Appraiser Rhonda Cason, Chairman of the Wheeler County Board of Assessors Martin Roberts, and Melzar Nye, president of Technical Appraisal Services of Georgia, Inc., in Macon, answer questions from citizens about recent county property assessments in a meeting in Alamo on July 20.Photo by Deborah Clark

“I know there are a lot of upset people here tonight,” Chairman of the Wheeler County Board of Assessors Martin Roberts said as a much-anticipated meeting kicked off on July 20. The session, held at the Alamo Community Center, was conducted by the Board to answer the public’s questions about recent property assessments that increased substantially over last year — by as much as 50%, according to one resident.

The Wheeler County Commissioner’s meeting room at the community multi-purpose center was filled as residents gathered to ask questions and register complaints about the assessments, which were mailed on June 23. Also in attendance was Chief Appraiser continued from page

Rhonda Cason and Melzar Nye, president of Technical Appraisal Services of Georgia, Inc., of Macon, who was contracted by Wheeler County to conduct the appraisals of real property.

The assessment issue surfaced at the July session of the Wheeler County Commission where a number of residents signed in to voice their concerns. Wheeler County Commission Chairman Keith Mc-Neal, Commissioner Danny Clark, and Commissioner Rochelle Culver attempted to assuage citizens’ fears by stressing that the valuations did not automatically mean their property taxes would go up. The Commission has the option to roll back the millage rate based on assessments, and this is the plan when the county sets the new millage rate in the fall. The Wheeler County School Board, which also sets a millage rate, will do the same.

Roberts was confronted with impatience from some members of the audience as he attempted to answer questions and had to ask not to be talked over him as he spoke. “The County is obliged. They have to roll the tax rate back. They cannot tax you at the rate that you are currently seeing on your assessment. What you saw on your current assessment is not what you are going to pay in taxes.”

What Roberts was referring to is a provision in state law guaranteed by the Property Tax Payers Bill of Rights which was passed in 1999. This law provides that when hikes in existing property values increase property tax revenue, the calculation of a rollback rate is mandatory. The rollback would keep property tax revenue at the same amount as the year prior to offset any inflationary increases in the digest. Why Are Property Values Increasing?

Wheeler County has gone for some time without doing a massive property reassessment. “The reason why we pushed this out for so long was in consideration of the citizens, hoping that this explosion we saw in the housing market would burst. But it didn’t. It went straight up, and instead of coming straight back down, like it should have, it leveled off,” Cason explained.

Nye added, “The market (for existing housing) has boomed because people are moving into the state but houses are not being built, and people are willing to pay higher prices (for existing properties). I have seen brick ranch houses going for $150 per square foot. I work in 15 counties in Georgia and I am seeing it all over the state. Even if you sold your house at a higher price now, you would not be able to rebuild it for the same price. Nobody is building.”

But now, time is up, Cason said. The Board of Assessors has a mandate from the State Department of Audits and Accounts. All property in Georgia is taxed at an assessment rate of 40% of its full market value. If a county cannot meet this criteria, it will be penalized and lose critical funding.

The DOAA performs Sales Ratios Studies of all counties every year. This is a statistical test to determine if values are in compliance with market sales. IF DOAA statistical standards are not met, the county will be subject to several sanctions. These include: • $5/parcel flne, which would be about $20,405 for Wheeler County • Forfeiture of all grant monies from the state • Board of Education funding from the state reduced to equal or lower assessment ratio • Loss of income from public utilities • Complete revaluation will be ordered to bring values back in compliance to meet the statistical test “We are mandated by the state. If we get out of (this 40%) ratio, the state starts withholding funds from the county, we start forfeiting grant money, reducing educational funds to schools, taking away public utilities, and having to have a complete reevaluation of all properties that is done by the state. Then you are stuck with whatever the complete reevaluation is,” Roberts emphasized.

Nye added, “When you look at the state’s ratio studies for last year, there were 57 counties below the 36% ratio, and 95 below the 38% ratio. It is not just this county that is having this issue; it’s the whole state of Georgia. In this state, properties are assessed at 40% of value. When you fall below 36%, you are failing, and below 38% public utilities are valued at whatever the ratio is instead of 40%, so you lose money for public utilities. It is really important to keep assessed values above 38%.”

When asked why current assessments were mailed without the calculated rollback, which would have eased tensions, Cason said that the software to accomplish this task was not available to the local office to accomplish this. “To be honest with you, the state of Georgia has not been in the local tax assessor’s office in a long time and thought out this process. Software can actually calculate a possible roll back millage rate, but the assessment doesn’t accommodate us being able to do that. It is a poorly-designed system.” How Assessments Were Done The basis for ad valorem taxation is the fair market value of the property as determined by the Tax Assessor’s Office. In Wheeler County, this office is headed by Cason and augmented by the Board of Tax Assessors, which Roberts chairs.

Under normal circumstances, there are three members on this appointed Board, but due to the deaths of two of the members of the Board, two local citizens have been appointed and are in training. When questioned about acting on his own in setting the assessments, Roberts assured those attending the meeting that he had been granted authority by the state to conduct the reassessments as the sole, current member of the Board.

“That is why this is an appointed office, not an elected office, because we can’t be swayed about whether we want to keep our jobs or not. We try to be completely neutral. We strictly assess the value of the property and that’s it, and we try to follow the book,” Roberts said.

Nye explained that in order to come up with a fair reassessment, every sale which occurred in the last two years in Wheeler County was studied, and 18 properties were selected as representative properties or “comparables.”

“We have been way undervalued for years now,” Roberts said, “and currently, we are still valued less than fair market value. Nobody in this room would sell their house for what it is valued at on these new assessments. We believe assessment values are still low, but will be acceptable to the state.“ We have been within reason and fair with assessments, and following the law with the 18 comparable properties that have been used to calculate the assessments. If your home is valued at $145,000 on the assessment, it’s worth more than that if you want to sell it.” The list of 18 comparable properties is available for review by the public.

In addition to the county-wide reassessment, which is done every three years, a third of the county is reviewed every year for additions and changes to property, and sales are studied to keep the county within the state ratio. “If the market is trending back down significantly, by law we are required to go back down. If sales show the market going back down, there will be a mass reappraisal. The trend is following market,” Cason explained.

Millage and Rollback

The taxable value of property is multiplied by the millage rate. A mill is $1 per $1,000 of taxable value. In Wheeler County, the School Board and the County use the Board of Assessments data to determine and set separate millage rates. These millage rates determine the total amount of taxes county residents will pay annually. Last year, the BOE millage rate was 15.7090, and the County millage rate was 15.9220.

Once the total digest of taxable property is prepared, Georgia law requires that a rollback millage rate must be calculated that will produce the same revenue on the current year’s digest that last year’s millage rate would have produced had no reassessments occurred.

The tax digest can go up or down based on inflation’s impact on property values and growth in the digest through development. If property values increase, the value of the digest increases.

Citizens Lament Tax Burden

“Has there been any consideration of homestead valuation freeze?” asked county resident Len Dennis. He said, according to the Georgia Department of Revenue website, the Constitution of Georgia allows counties to enact local homestead exemptions that will freeze the valuation of property at the base of the property valuation as long as the homeowner resides on the property.

He noted that even as property values continue to rise, the homeowner’s taxes will be based on the base valuation and that provisions can be put in place to limit increases in tax percentages every year. “It’s not like the 40% or 50% increase we saw this year. If you increase by 3% year, it’s better than slamming everybody with a 50% increase.”

Cason responded, “The biggest reason we don’t offer advanced exemptions like that is that counties that do have these exemptions, like DeKalb and Cobb, have industrial bases (from which to draw taxes). Unfortunately, all Wheeler County residents have is each other and a prison. If you give one person a higher exemption, it falls on someone else to make up the difference.”

Roberts, who said he does not favor freezing valuations, told those attending the meeting, “We have gone years without having to have a mass reassessment. For years you have saved money. The county is struggling now and having to borrow money to make ends meet. We all benefit from services. It is our government. Locally, this money will go to the County. The taxes you are paying on your property are staying in the County.”

He emphasized that rolling back the millage rate will bring residents closer to what they paid in taxes last year.

Alamo City Councilman and long-time local resident Bobby Cox focused on the hardship higher taxes will cause low-income families and seniors living on fixed incomes. “We are a low-income county. A lot of the homes here are 40 to 50 years old. They were bought and paid for by people with low incomes. These people are now on social security and still on low incomes; they are barely making a good living rate. The way taxes are going up, people can’t stand much more.”

Cason noted that a number of Wheeler County senior residents qualified this year for S4 exemptions, which are based on household income and age. Several different types of exemptions are available, including homestead exemptions (where the property is the primary residence), as well as exemptions based on age, income, disability, veterans with 100% disability, and other criteria. The State requires that residents be made aware of exemptions, and a note regarding exemptions is included with tax bills, Cason said. She urged residents who think they may qualify for exemptions to contact her office and pursue these exemptions to ease the tax burden. Nye shared that the state will provide a onetime reduction in tax bills of approximately $500 for those claiming homestead exemptions. These reductions will be automatic if the resident has qualified for a homestead exemption.

During the meeting, one citizen commented that his recent assessment increased his property values by over $62,000. “That will raise my taxes almost $790.”

Cason responded to the citizen that he was looking at an assessment based on the 2022 millage rate that does not include a rollback. “The 2023 has not yet been set. They (the County and School Board) are working on rollback millage rates. They understand they are required to do that to handle the taxations equitably and legally.”

Another citizen was puzzled about why her home’s value appeared to double since last year. “My home was built in 1960 and assessed at $40,000 last year, but was $71,000 more this year. Explain that to me.”

Nye responded that the value of property is determined by several factors: square footage, condition, quality of construction, and fair market value. “The depreciation of a house levels out if the house is maintained.” The length of time between reassessments may have also been a factor.

When another citizen complained that the County Commissioners could rectify the increase in assessments, Roberts countered, “Commissioners can set the millage rate but they have no say-so on assessments. Assessments are based on the hard number of sales, not someone’s opinion. Appraisals are based on comparables in your area. We are assessing the value of your home but not setting your tax rate. The County sets the millage rate based on budget needs for the next year. They use the 40% factor and decide what they need to make county function.”

He said of the assessments, “There is no funny business, no picking on anybody, it’s across the board. We strictly deal with assessed value of the property.” Roberts pointed out that many counties assess personal property valued at over $7,500, which is taxable, like side-by-sides and four-wheelers. “That is an option, but it is not done in this county. You won’t find a better place to live as far as taxes are concerned. It’s very favorable for residents, but the County struggles each year to makes end meet. It’s tough.”

The County and School Board will set millage rates in the fall, and the due date for payments will likely be in mid-March of 2024.

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