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Commercial property owners next in line to protest tax reassessments
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It’s déjà vu all over again, except with a little twist.

This time last year, lakefront property owners in Hall County were crying foul about tax reassessments, which drove up values and taxes owed on about 90 percent of those homes.

Lake properties rose in value by an average of 39 percent, though many residents saw their assessments double and triple, prompting more than 5,000 appeals.

Now, it’s commercial property owners who are beating the drums about dramatic year-over-year increases in tax assessments.

“You may have commercial people with torches and buckets of hot tar marching because this is unfair and inequitable and
anti-business,” said Frank Norton Jr., CEO and chairman of The Norton Agency, a Gainesville-based real estate firm.

With commercial land and building values going up, Hall County Chief Tax Assessor Steve Watson has said it was time to specifically review those properties to ensure equity.

Of more than 4,200 commercial and industrial properties inspected, about 60 percent will see a significant rise in value this year, with an average net increase of 27 percent, Watson told The Times earlier this month.

“The other 40 percent stayed within 5 percent of last year’s value or went down,” Watson added.

Norton, though, said one of his properties in downtown Gainesville went up 1,172 percent, another property 152 percent, and still more along Green Street better than 40 percent.

Additionally, Norton said, an empty building in Oakwood saw a 22 percent increase.

He said the total estimated increase in taxes for all his properties combined is “significantly” over six figures. 

Meanwhile, Frank Simpson, founder and president of The Simpson Co., a real estate group based in Gainesville, said that all of his properties, about 16 or more, had been reassessed at a higher value.

“I just met with a guy for lunch. His went up 100 percent for an office building,” Simpson said Thursday. “I can’t imagine what the windfall of income is to the county.”

During the uproar over lakefront reassessments last year, Watson said state law requires the county to assess property at fair market value.

Moreover, a state-mandated moratorium on reassessments was in place from 2009 through 2011 — a product of the recession — which explains the sharp increases from one year to the next, he said.

“There’s always a consequence when the state legislature puts a freeze on reassessments,” said Hall County Commissioner Scott Gibbs.

Both Norton and Simpson warned of unintended consequences resulting from the reassessments on such a financially large slice of the county’s tax base.

As an example, Simpson said that were he to enter a 10-year gross lease with a business for an office space, his profit could be wiped out with a dramatic increase in property value, which he would have to cover, in the early years of the contract.

“What does that do to my investment?” he asked. “What does that do to the value of the building? And there’s nothing I can do to fix it for 10 years.”

After the lakefront reassessments, some homeowners began calling on state lawmakers to enact legislation that would place a cap on how much property taxes can increase in a given year.

Simpson said another alternative might be to phase in property tax increases over several years. He said he understands that some values need to be adjusted upward, but the impact of dramatic, “overnight” increases in property values will hurt businesses.

“It was easy to ignore the loud rich people,” Norton said. “But it’s not going to be easy to (dismiss) those creating jobs. So there will be a rally cry.”

But Simpson isn’t convinced business and property owners will organize in mass opposition.

“I’ve said all along, if we get a group of people together, commercial owners, and go fight it, we’d probably have a pretty good chance,” he said. “But nobody is willing to pull together and make it happen.”

Property owners have 45 days from the date of notice to appeal their valuation. More information can be found by visiting taxassessor.hallcounty.org or calling 770-531-6720.

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