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Low tax digest adds up to tough budget year
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FLOWERY BRANCH — Hall County's 2011 tax digest is down, which could spell the worst budget year yet for local governments, finance officials said Wednesday morning.

With an uncertain economy and several tax assessment changes dictated by state law, county officials aren't sure how far revenues will plunge or how soon they will know the answer.

"This upcoming year may be the most difficult budget year local governments have ever faced," said Jock Connell, Hall County's interim county administrator.

 "That's a problem because whether we're with the cities, counties or schools, we don't need uncertainty when it comes to revenue projections."

For taxpayers, this leaves the question of whether millage rates will go up this year.

The Hall County Board of Commissioners called a public meeting at the Mulberry Creek Community Center in Flowery Branch to bring together city officials, the Hall County Board of Assessors and the Hall County Tax Commissioner's Office.

"We're all in a little precarious situation as we try to determine just how much we might lose in property appeals this year, and we need to make sure this meeting opens the dialogue between all of the tax entities," said Lisa Johnsa, the county's interim finance director. "We can't put a number on something if the number doesn't exist, but if we all know that, rather than sitting in Lula or Flowery Branch wondering what's going on, it'll relieve a little anxiety."

Due to a new state law, counties are required to send an assessment notice to every property owner notifying them of the value of their property, regardless if it has changed. Based on 2010 numbers, the notice will not contain final tax estimates.

The higher volume of notices will generate a higher number of people appealing their property values.

The appeal deadline falls on June 30, meaning officials will be hearing appeals after fiscal year 2012 starts July 1.

Paired with a tax return deadline extended to April 1 this year, tax assessors are crunched for time, trying to mail assessment notices in May, calculate a preliminary digest number before millage rates are adopted in June and determine a final digest number before tax bills are mailed in August.

"We're sending about 76,000 notices, and we expect to experience a 15-18 percent appeals rate because people believe their property values have gone down," said Whit Powell, chairman of the tax assessors board. "Our small office usually sees 3,000 appeals or less, and this year could be around 14,000."

Under a test run, net taxable projections show Hall County's digest at minus 1.09 percent, Hall County schools at minus 0.58 percent and incorporated and unincorporated county fire services at minus 0.57.

Gross taxable digest projections for Gainesville show minus 2.82 percent, the largest negative projection listed. Oakwood posted minus 1.54 percent and Buford was minus 1.65 percent.

The one exception was Flowery Branch, where digest values showed a positive 2.39 projection now that the Atlanta Falcons Complex tax exemption has expired.

Since 2000, the county digest increased a steady 4-6 percent until 2009, when the increase slowed to 2 percent, said Scott Martin of the tax commissioner's office.

"When the digest dropped 2.5 percent last year, I remember when I took the numbers to the school boards that had to deal with a 4 percent drop because of all the school tax exemptions," he said.

"I thought we had seen the worst, but the numbers are going to drop this much and probably even further."

The other looming question comes with property values associated with foreclosed homes, Powell said.

"Foreclosures are not at fair market value, but now they must be taken into consideration," he said. "This year everyone will probably have to sandbag a little bit, which is a horrible way to set a budget, but that's what's going to happen."