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New laws expected to affect Hall budget
Adopted legislation forces tax assessors to face expense increase
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As Hall County's departments face an $8.8 million budget hole for fiscal year 2012, several changes at the state level aren't making it any easier.

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.

Officials expect the higher volume of notices will generate a higher number of people who appeal their property values.

Paired with a property 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've never had experience in sending these notices, so it's hard to plan," chief tax appraiser Steve Watson said during a budget hearing with county finance officials Wednesday.

A large number of appeals means a decline in revenue for the county, but it also means an increase in expenses for the tax assessors office. Mailing out more than 75,000 assessment notices equals about $33,000 in postage costs, and the increased demand will require a new appraiser position costing about $41,000.

"We're anticipating an increased number of phone calls, appeals and paperwork, and we don't want to put the digest numbers at risk," Watson said. "We want to have a timely submission as much as possible."

In addition, the office is bracing for $100,000 in legal fees, anticipating about the same it paid during the current fiscal year.

"A lot of the legal fees stem from one court case, and we'll probably see more like that this year," said Whit Powell, chairman of the tax assessors board. "One developer challenges us in court, which gives credence for others to do the same."

Most appeals will be settled, but a handful could make it to the courtroom.

"We have to represent our office. We can't let someone roll over us, and it's not fair for one company to get a reduced value and transfer a large amount to the taxpayers," Powell said. "We're obliged to fight and make things as equal as we can."

County officials are also keeping an eye on state legislation that could change the way victim-witness programs are funded.

"As it appears now with the state, we stand to lose an employee, and we need to deal with that in some way," said District Attorney Lee Darragh, who otherwise presented an unchanged budget. "I'm not foolish and haven't stuck my head in the sand. I know there are budgetary issues, but I simply can't not say anything about this need."

Every department and agency that requests funding from Hall County must present a budget this week for the fiscal year that starts July 1. Although most departments are turning in numbers with little or no difference, finance officials must find ways to trim millions from the ledger.

"The time for hard choices has arrived," interim County Administrator Jock Connell said Wednesday.


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