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To outsource or not? Hall officials debate how to pay for property reassessments
County has spent $480,000 in two years
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Frank Norton arrives at the Hunt Tower a property the Norton Group manages. Norton has not been pleased with the property’s new reassessment by Hall County, which has assesed it’s value much higher.

 In the last year, few things have been as contentious in Hall County as reassessments in value on lakefront homes and commercial businesses, sending tax bills for some property owners through the roof.

Lake properties rose in value by an average of 39 percent in 2014, prompting more than 5,000 appeals.

And reassessments this spring have driven up values on about 60 percent of 4,200 commercial and industrial properties in the county, with an average net increase of 27 percent, according to the tax assessor’s office.

Frank Norton Jr., CEO and chairman of The Norton Agency, a Gainesville-based real estate firm, told The Times in April that 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.

Against this backdrop, the Board of Commissioners is considering whether to hire additional personnel to handle reassessments or continue outsourcing much of the work.

“So my question is, are we better off to spend a little more money on three live bodies here or continue to potentially outsource … ?” asked Commissioner Jeff Stowe during a recent budget hearing.

The county has spent more than $480,000 contracting out reassessment work in the last two years.

About $57,000 remains available, and Chief Appraiser Steve Watson said he needs an additional $50,000 to help reassess rural land properties over the coming year.

Watson told the Board of Commissioners that he’d like to bring an end to this practice, but acknowledged that there may be some benefits.

“One of the things that I want to work toward is eliminating outsourcing,” he said. “However, at the same time, depending on the philosophy of the governing authority, I’m happy to entertain the thought of outsourcing because I think that under certain circumstances it could be a good thing.”

Watson said his current staffing levels do not meet industry standards and has proposed adding three in-house appraisers with an average salary of $51,000, plus benefits.

“The Board of Assessors requested that I consider adding the necessary staff to bring us into compliance with … recommended staffing levels,” Watson said.

The tax assessor’s office currently employs five field appraisers handling residential properties, one dedicated to residential and commercial land, and one dedicated exclusively to commercial assessments.

But the state Department of Revenue has warned that staffing levels are too low, according to Watson, with a parcels-per-appraiser ratio greater than the recommended limit of 5,000 to one.

The addition of three in-house appraisers would lower the county’s ratio to 7,010 to one, Watson said.

“While the Board of Assessors request to add three appraisal positions does not meet the recommended levels …  we believe that these levels gives us a better chance to keep property values in compliance on a year-to-year basis rather than letting property appraisals get so far out of compliance before making changes,” he added. “It also further reduces, and eventually potentially eliminates, the need for outsourcing.”

The total budget request for the tax assessor’s office in the 2016 fiscal year is $1,692,203, which is actually about $156,000 less than the approved budget in the current fiscal year.

County officials expressed different opinions about whether to continue outsourcing the controversial work of property reassessments, and a decision will come when the Board of Commissioners approves a budget next month.

“Personally, I lean toward having the boots on the ground here in Hall County,” Stowe said.

But outsourcing can have its upside, said Commissioner Scott Gibbs, adding that it may provide a “little more independence” to the process.

Watson said he understands the political costs of the debate.

“At the end of the day, what I want to be able to do is produce a good product, be efficient and stay in compliance,” he added. “That’s of the utmost importance.”