If there is one thing Hall County has learned from the recession, it’s that the unexpected will happen.
The Tax Assessors Office, which has a modest legal budget of $11,000, ended up in a lawsuit earlier this year with legal costs of about $68,000.
During the budgeting process, the Tax Assessors Office never imagined a trial would be in its future.
“You do your best to try to anticipate what your next year’s expenses are going to be,” Hall County Administrator Charley Nix said.
“Legal fees are no different than any other line item in many other ways. It’s a bit more volatile because you have no clue what’s going to come at you the next year.”
Appeals of tax appraisals are often mediated and sometimes heard by judges, but it is unusual for them to be tried before a jury.
“I can’t recall in recent history where we’ve ever actually gone to trial in this extent,” Nix said.
In April, A Hall County jury overturned the Board of Tax Assessors’ appraised values of 58 vacant lots at a Braselton subdivision.
Frank Norton Jr. of North Georgia Growth Fund appealed the 2009 appraisals of the properties, claiming the values of between $50,000 and $53,000 per lot were in excess of fair market value, which he claimed should be $17,900 per lot.
The jury lowered the fair market value of each parcel to $42,424.
Chief Appraiser Mike Henderson said the office had to pay for its opponent’s legal fees, a measure that put it over budget.
“The Taxpayers Bill of Rights was passed in 2000 by Gov. Roy Barnes and there’s provisions written in there where residential property if through a superior court case the value is lowered more than 15 percent, then the county is responsible for the taxpayer’s attorneys fees,” Henderson said. “The values were lowered in this case just over the 15 percent threshold.
“It’s hard to budget for something like that.”
Nix said the state of the economy has gotten more people interested and skeptical of their government.
“This huge recession we’ve been in, you get a lot of input from citizens,” Nix said. “It of course tends to generate more legal fees in a very broad sense, in a variety of areas.”
Henderson said he was able to pay for the legal fees by taking money from other funds within his office, which handles both real property and personal property.
“I have a legal fee budgeted in both departments,” Henderson said. “As long as I’m not over that bottom line.”
Nix said there is no countywide fund for legal fees. If a department is unable to find enough funding, they must ask the commission to approve more money.
“Each department head is responsible for making sure they don’t cross the line,” Nix said. “It’s an art about as much as it is a science.”
Another tough aspect to budgeting legal fees is how lengthy many court cases can be.
“It’s really hard within a 12-month constraint,” Henderson said. “We have cases from 2008 that are still pending.”
Nix said each county department has a unique legal budget.
Generally, human resources, finance and planning and zoning have the highest legal budgets.
“The human resources department is probably involved a great deal more with seeking and needing legal advice that say building inspection,” Nix said.
Countywide cases, such as the city of Clermont’s lawsuit against Hall County over the location of the North Hall library, are funded by the administration’s legal budget.
Though unpredictable, legal battles are a part of life for county government.
“You just have no clue what’s going to come at you the next year,” Nix said.