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Monday, August 20, 2012

Thousands of Fulton taxpayers overbilled.

By Johnny Edwards
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Yet another billing error has hit thousands of Fulton County taxpayers.

An estimated 6,500 to 7,000 property owners have been overcharged because one department, the tax assessor's office, did not key tax appeals into a computer system before another department, the tax commissioner's office, generated 2012 bills. Chief Appraiser David Fitzgibbon attributed the delay partly to a flooded workspace during heavy rains in July.

Under state law, homeowners contesting their property's tax value should receive temporary bills calculated at 85 percent of its value, but those whose appeals weren't entered got billed at 100 percent. A similar problem cropped up in Fulton last year, part of a series of errors made during a record appeal year.

Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand estimated the extra cost in printing, postage and manpower to send corrected bills will be about $2,000.

The overbillings are particularly vexing for those whose tax values got raised this year, now that a three-year state-mandated moratorium on raising assessments has ended. Some homeowners worry that mortgage companies will pay the bills and raise monthly payments, but Ferdinand said lenders won't start paying off taxes until next month, and bills should be corrected by then.

Many residents and taxpayer advocates who have seen other foul-ups have doubts.

The assessor's office raised the value of Scott and Elizabeth Osmon's home in Inman Park from $655,400 to $733,300 this year. The couple appealed before the June 28 deadline, so they should have received a green temporary bill. Instead, they got a bill on white paper that's $2,000 higher than it should be.

"I hope he's right," Osmon said of Ferdinand, "but I have zero reasons to trust what he says or anyone in his office says."

Last year, under Fitzgibbon's predecessor Burt Manning, the county sent overblown tax bill estimates to about 136,000 Atlanta property owners, attributed to a computer glitch and careless staff. The county wound up remailing 230,000 assessment notices, costing an estimated $140,000.

Later, some homeowners who filed appeals received bills calculated at 100 percent.

Then, research by tax activist R. J. Morris revealed Fulton had appraised dozens of properties higher than they sold for in 2010, contrary to state law.

Brent Sobol has spent the past week scrambling to correct his bills. He's been overbilled nearly $20,000 on the southwest Atlanta housing complex he owns and manages, about $570 on his Buckhead condominium and about $470 on two rental properties.

The lender on his housing complex is waiting for him to provide the tax bill, he said.

"My margins are thin," Sobol said. "I can't afford to trust the clerk at the counter that I will get in the mail that temporary bill for 85 percent."
Barbara Payne, executive director of the Buckhead-based Fulton County Taxpayers Foundation, said, "Every time Fulton County has a massive slip-up, all it does is infuriate those who want to split," referring to the movement to split north Fulton into its own county.

Fitzgibbon took responsibility for the latest problem, saying it's mostly the result of his staff getting behind. Fulton appeals are down this year from about 38,000 to 22,000, but Fitzgibbon said a flood of them came in during the week before the June 28 deadline.

Then a literal flood in his downtown Atlanta office exacerbated the delay when a pipe in a ceiling separated, soaking a data-entry room with almost an inch of water. Dozens of workers had to be moved to new stations, Fitzgibbon said.

Some appeals, from 1,000 to 1,500, get entered late every year, Ferdinand said, causing him to have to send corrected bills. It happens in other counties, too. Some DeKalb County taxpayers, for example, had their appeal deadlines extended after receiving corrected assessment notices, and some appealed and weren't accounted for before bills went out, according to Property Quality Control Supervisor Theresa Gaffney. That probably affected less than 150 taxpayers, she said.

Taxes are one thing, but a succession of glitches, oversights and foul-ups has made Fulton County's tax system especially maddening for property owners. Watching your tax dollars, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution exposed a slew of errors made last year. Today's story, a collaborative effort with Channel 2 Action News, digs into a tax bill slip-up this year.

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