By D.L. BENNETT www.ajc.com
Tax bills for most Fulton County property owners should go out on time but local governments won't be able to reap the full windfall from the county's revaluation of commercial property anytime soon, if ever.
The complete review of all commercial properties boosted the value of property countywide about 16 percent. Dozens of properties more than doubled. The increase was even higher in Atlanta, which jumped nearly 20 percent. The windfall expected by local governments varied, but Fulton County and the Atlanta school board each projected more than $80 million in 2008 collections without raising the tax rate.
A settlement approved Monday in Fulton County Superior Court cuts into that potential windfall by preventing Fulton County tax appraisers from using the new, often dramatically higher, appraisals on thousands of properties revalued this year.
The deal affects any property revalued in 2008 and under appeal and any property with a value set by appeal in 2006 or 2007. The order will expire whenever Fulton County is able to resolve about half of the pending 15,000 appeals.
At that point, Fulton will be able to rebill any parcel still under appeal at 85 percent of its 2008 value or wait until all appeals are resolved and adjust bills then.
Officials were uncertain exactly what that would mean late Monday but said many governments would collect less, at least for now. And lots of folks will get more than one bill."I'm just guessing, but I'd say it's 7 to 10 percent of the digest," said Burt Manning, Fulton's chief appraiser.
He estimated it would take at least four months to resolve the 8,000 appeals needed to eliminate the temporary collection order agreed to Monday.
"It's better to bill now on part of the digest than to wait three or four months," Manning said.
He said the only bills that may be slightly delayed are in Atlanta, which tries to bill for property taxes July 15. Most governments follow Fulton's schedule of billing on Aug. 15. All bills must be paid within 60 days.
Sandy Springs lawyer Bob Proctor, who has a history of filing suits challenging Fulton over assessments and tax billings, challenged Fulton's efforts for a temporary collection order and came away victorious, again.
Proctor also has filed a class action suit against the county challenging the revaluation.
Proctor called the settlement reached with two dozen lawyers representing a host of local governments a victory for property owners.
"With the number of appeals we have pending, it's not fair to treat this year as just any other year," said Proctor. "It's temporary relief, but it's relief from these outrageous assessments."
Monday's agreement came without a hearing before Superior Court Judge Doris Downs. She simply asked the attorneys to confer, and they eventually agreed to modify the order Proctor had proposed without oral arguments. The judge said she would sign their order.
Proctor originally had asked all Fulton judges to recuse themselves. He agreed to Downs deciding the case if it could be resolved Monday. Proctor stressed he didn't want to needlessly delay all the local governments while Fulton searched for a senior judge or out-of-county judge.
The agreement reached Monday at least allows for tax billing to happen on time, said Larry Ramsey, interim Fulton County attorney. "It's a good compromise," said Ramsey, "considering all the uncertainty of how long the legal process might take."