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Some residents question sharp rise in property tax assessments

POSTED: April 20, 2017 7:41 p.m.
NICK BOWMAN/The Times

Hall County Chief Appraiser Steve Watson, pictured on Thursday, talked to The Times about the county government's assessment process and why some property owners are seeing large increases in their assessments this year.

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Some Hall County property owners are shocked by big increases to their tax assessments as the area continues its post-recession resurgence.

Assessments are going up this year for just fewer than 28,000 of the county’s approximately 75,000 parcels, according to Steve Watson, the chief appraiser for Hall County government. While the dollar value connected to the market boost won’t be made public until May, Watson said it’s a “positive” sign that the area is shaking off its recession-era stagnation.

Hall County fell from issuing more than 2,000 building permits in a year to 300 after the 2007 market crash. Permits are climbing above 1,000 issued each year and the taxable property value in the county is climbing to around $8 billion, Watson said, which is good news for the area.

But that’s cold comfort to some property owners who are looking at double- or triple-digit percentage increases above their 2016 assessment.

“My previous appraisal on the land was $154,600,” said Duckett Mill Road resident and retired Realtor Kim Fortney. “(Now) it’s $618,000.”

That four-fold increase is just on his land — a 2-acre parcel tucked into a Lake Lanier cove with about 150 feet of lakefront that he bought for $54,000 in 1996. Including his 18-year-old house, Fortney said his total assessment jumped to more than $1 million from 2016 — an overall increase of 80 percent.

“There are very few lots in Hall County, and I’m talking lake lots, that sell for $600,000. Very few,” he said.

Fortney’s property saw it’s last big assessment increase in 2013, when it was included in the tax assessor’s review of all Lake Lanier properties — a “special project” on the part of the department intended to renew outdated information, Watson said.

“That year, I took a 23 percent increase, which is substantial, but we didn’t think it was unreasonable or anything,” Fortney said.

Reviewing Fortney’s case on Thursday, Watson said the property owner has a larger-than-average lot for the cove. Sales in the area range from $150,000 to $445,000 “for vacant land that is much smaller in size,” the chief appraiser said. Using nearby sales, the office establishes a “base rate” for lots in the area and makes adjustments to values based on a lot’s characteristics, he said.

“We’re not looking to increase anyone’s property value. We just want it right,” Watson said.

Now, Fortney is planning to appeal his valuation, which will later this year turn into a property tax bill that for Fortney would be $5,000 more than it was last year.

He’ll be one of thousands of people appealing their valuation this year — an annual process that involves reviews by the assessment department and elected officials.

Property owners have until May 30 to file a written appeal of their property assessments, most of which hit mailboxes on Monday.

Most objections are settled by the staff at the tax assessor’s office, Watson said. But if a property owner’s complaint can’t be resolved, he or she can appeal to the Hall County Board of Equalization or to the local Superior Court.

Appeals aren’t based on whether homeowners think their taxes are too high, but on value, uniformity, taxability — statewide standards that are based on market values, neighborhoods and exemptions on a property.

Sitting in his office on Thursday, Watson talked with the Times about how the county assesses property for the tax roll and how his department is trying to make improvements to avoid large year-to-year increases like the one seen by Fortney.

THE MARKET

Most assessments start with home sales.

“We look at the sales in a particular neighborhood. Are they selling for more than what we have them valued at?” Watson said.

If so, the department sends out one of its eight appraisers to examine the neighborhood — taking pictures of homes, checking for improvements or changes on the ground and recording how houses are graded. Grades are a summary of the “quality, design and craftsmanship of the house,” Watson said, and can change from house to house within a neighborhood.

It can be several years before an area is revisited by the department because of the size of the county and the number of staff available.

A lot can change in a few years.

“Boots on the ground is a big deal,” Watson said. “... Property owners make improvements to the property without us knowing about it, and the property ends up selling for more than what we have on it.

“Not that they’ve done anything wrong or illegal, it’s just that there’s a lot of work or remodeling that you can do to a home without taking a building permit out.”

Those changes can add up to tens of thousands of dollars in market value of a home that, when sold, will be far enough above established property values that it triggers a review by the department.

That’s one of the reasons Fortney is so frustrated by his assessment. The former real estate agent said three properties adjoining his sold for an average $160,000 in 2016, but that didn’t stop his assessment from jumping 80 percent.

“The market is constantly moving, and we only have so many people to do this work that we do,” Watson said. “We can’t get around to everything every year.”

While some areas might go years without a visit from the tax assessor’s office, others see almost annual increases because of the large volume of sales within the neighborhood — especially areas like Cresswind, Village at Deaton Creek, the Reunion Country Club and Sterling on the Lake.

STREAMLINING

Jeremy Ewers, a Harbour Point homeowner, learned that his assessment was increasing almost 30 percent in 2017.

“When I look at my numbers, I believe that probably what they brought it to is a realistic number,” Ewers told the Times this week. “It’s probably pretty dang close to what it should be.”

While he believes the assessment on his $500,000 dollar home was accurate, Ewers summed up what many homeowners must think when they look at a double-digit percentage increase.

“Thirty percent in one year is insane,” he said.

Watson acknowledged that the gaps in assessments are a problem — saying that in his three decades as an appraiser it’s the most common complaint he’s received — and this year he’s pitching a technological solution to the Hall County Board of Commissioners.

He wants the county to invest in an app, Mobile Assessor, to use with the department’s existing iPads that would allow them to access the assessment system in the field.

“It doesn’t make the field inspection go faster. What it does is it eliminates a lot of the shuffling of the paper and the processing,” Watson said.

The assessment office’s eight appraisers generate a river of paper each year. By eliminating the processing and data entry required by written reports and instead plugging information directly into the assessment’s information system, the appraiser said his department could update every parcel in the county on a 3-year cycle.

“It’ll stabilize some of the increases that we’ve seen in the tax digest instead of having more of the wild swings. It’ll be almost like being able to hire four and a half people, new appraisers,” Watson said. “... I can’t change the behavior of the market but, if we can stay closer to market value on a year-to-year basis, that keeps us from having to make such huge increases from year to year.”

Watson didn’t disclose the price of the app or the startup costs for the department, saying he wanted to wait until the budget process begins with the Board of Commissioners. Similarly, the county’s preliminary tax digest — the breakdown of all of the property value in the area — will be released in May and isn’t being disclosed until then.



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