Sticker shock – Decatur grumbling over assessments

Posted by Dan Whisenhunt June 4, 2014
Decatur GA coourthouse

Decatur GA courthouse

Decatur residents who received their 2014 tax assessments are doing a double take.

A county appraiser says Decatur’s increase in property value is playing catch-up after years of lagging behind.

That may not be much comfort to some property owners who are reporting that their assessments were up significantly over last year.

Commercial property owner Chad Stogner said the county increased the assessment of his property on West Trinity by 50 percent. Allen Mast, who lives in Oakhurst, said his home value increased by 30 percent. He said after comparing his property assessment with his neighbors, he’s confused about why his went up.

“It sounds like it’s kind of all over the place for people with not a lot of rhyme or reason to it,” Mast said. “So I’m trying to make a decision whether or not I’m going to appeal.”

Property owners have 45 days to file an appeal if they disagree with the county’s assessment. For more about DeKalb County’s appeals process, click here.

The appraisals are affecting the budgets of the city of Decatur and its school system. The tax digest increased by more than 12 percent, and Decatur is having to advertise a millage rate increase this year, even though the rate of 13 mills will not change.

Joyce Lackey, the appraiser responsible for residential property in Decatur, said the increases are overdue.

“There are many reasons why there were a lot of increases this year,” she said.  “This is probably more than there has been in some time.”

She said the biggest reason for the jump was a state-enacted moratorium on property values. Lackey said the only way an assessor could increase the value was if a homeowner made an addition to their property.

“The values were held there for a year or two or three entire years,” Lackey said. “The moratorium came off last year.”

Lackey said another factor behind the increases had to do with a backlog of tax appeals filed after the economy crashed.

“When the economy failed, people wanted their values lowered,” Lackey said. “We concentrated on that. It created a problem to get the appeals working. We got backlogged on some of the permits. The goal this year is to get the value up to par where the market says they should be and try to get all of the unworked permits completed.”

Lackey sees another potential increase next year, but it will probably be smaller. She said the reopening of Westchester Elementary in Decatur will create a high demand in that area, meaning more permits.

“The investors come in and buy up all the old properties,” Lackey said. “It’s massive when anything happens with a school. You’ll start seeing permits. There’s more and more coming in.  I know next year’s another a big one because I see the number of permits that go out. So next year will not be as massive as this year, because we had all of those frozen values.”

Stogner said he plans to appeal his assessment using the city’s recently-adopted tree ordinance.

“The new ordinance requires canopy that can only be ‘tree banked’ down to 17.5 percent,” Stogner said. “Thus the value of the land is reduced by an aggregate of the cost of the tree banking and 17.5 percent.”

Lackey said she hadn’t considered whether the new tree regulations could be the basis for an appeal.

“I would never have dreamed of that one,” she said. “I bet you if I had that in front of me, I would have to let the county attorney look at it to advise me as to how I should properly handle that one.”

One property owner says an appeal would be pointless, given the rapid growth and development in Decatur.

Thomas Atkinson said he’s not surprised by his higher tax bill. Atkinson said in some cases developers are paying between $300,000 and $400,000 just for property and building houses worth more than that.

“I think you’re wasting your time (appealing),” he said. “There’s so many high (comparable sales) that if you appeal, they’re going to be armed with so much information, they would probably raise it on you.”

Members of the Decatur City Commission are sensitive to the issue. During a June 2 hearing on the city’s budget, there was discussion about increasing the city’s reserves, known as its “fund balance.” Mayor Jim Baskett said the city should consider putting a cushion in the budget in case there are more appeals than usual, but it shouldn’t add more to its reserves than is necessary.

“At a time when assessments are hitting people so hard, I’d hate to see us putting money into fund balance,” Baskett said. “We’re at 25 percent and our policy is 20 to 30 percent. I can see putting some in there as a cushion for appeals.  It may not be the best time to increase from 25 to 27 percent.”

About Dan Whisenhunt

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  • Another Decaturite

    I would have no (or at least less) problem with our increased appraisal if other properties on my street had similar increases. There is no reason why substantially similar 3 bed/2 bath houses on identically sized lots should be have appraised values that differ by almost $300k

    • bluesman101


    • ann_e

      I totally agree. The increases are not equitable across the city. People in very similar houses have been increased $200,000+ while others next door and across the street in essentially the same house stayed the same. The assessors will argue that the sales prices have gone up so we will not be able to get the value down. The city will quickly figure out a way to spend it all asap; it’s just a 12 percent increase, no reason to adjust the milage…. And next year it will go up to the next group of unlucky homeowners and the same story. That way in five years, everyone’s taxes will all go up and Decatur will not have to raise it’s millage because it will all have our taxes doubled. Brilliant! Only a lot of us will no longer be able to live here because we can’t afford the taxes. We bought a house for 400,000 because we could afford those taxes. We cannot afford the taxes on a 600,000 house. I here the case of gentrification and worry about seniors that can’t pay their taxes, but what about the middle class with kids in college? Messed up. Pretty soon Decatur will be only for the very wealthy.

  • Robert

    We either live on the same street or this problem is widespread. Even if I successfully appeal my 20% assessment increase my taxes will be higher than those of my neighbor with a 4000 sq/ft house with 2 car attached garage. Given the proportion of taxes that go to the COD vs DeKalb County it is clear to me that the city needs to take a more active role in assessments within its borders.

    • Actium

      Agreed. An effective appraisal process would likely pay for itself given the current inbalance. And if if it costs the city something I think having a fair system would be well worth the price. The current process breeds resentment amongst neighbors, a toxic state of affairs to say the least.

  • ann_e

    I disagree that the millage rate can’t go down. If everyone across the city was assessed to true market value, it could go way down and keep the school tax revenue the same. But to randomly assess some properties to market value and above and some to half of it, is wrong. Currently, most properties are assessed significantly below market value.
    Also, I know of one contractor in particular that told his clients (some $500,000+ renovations) not to file for the certificate of occupancy so as to not trigger the taxes to go up. All the open permits should be checked out if they are trying to catch up on unreported renovations.

    • Actium

      Maybe you are right about millage rate. I would like to think so… If what you are describing about intentionally waiting to file for certificate of occupancy is true, it seems to constitute tax fraud. It also suggests that this may be a CITY problem as much as a county one. Procedures should be put in place so that permit timelines are respected and so that certificates of occupancy are processed in a timely manner. Folks who intentionally delay should be subject to steep fines. It seems increasingly to me that Dekalb County is being scapegoated for abuses that it is the city’s responsibility to prevent. Everyone loves to dump on Dekalb, so it is an easy target, but that may be distracting us from the bigger problem. Maybe this is a story that has legs – hint hint Decaturish!

  • Sine qua non

    Mon Dieu! Now even LAWYERS can’t afford to live in Decatur? Unthinkable!

    But seriously, to answer your question, which is: “what could have been done to prevent this?
    Place a limit on the size and speed of residential development?”

    Why yes, Actium, I think the controls you suggest might have helped.

    Or how about that 90 day teardown moratorium that was proposed last fall but glibly rejected by the city commission? That might have given everyone time to figure things out.

    Or, how about that historic preservation district proposal that was bandied about Oakhurst in the mid to late ’00’s until developers made it politically incorrect to support or even debate it because they said it would make the teardown-type properties worthless.

    I think the argument went something like this: “Longtime Oakhurst resident, no potential buyer will want to live in your cruddy, modest home, and so if they are prohibited from simply bulldozing it at will by historic district regulations, then they’ll not buy it at all! For your house is far too cruddy for tomorrow’s affluent Oakh–I mean, Decaturite–to renovate, expand and live in. They’ll just go someplace else and build their big ol’ McMansion. And then you will have NOTHING. But I don’t want to scare you:-) It’s for the good of us all, you see. 🙂

    I’m not a certified expert in zoning, taxation, urban planning, community building, etc., so I too hope someone more knowledgeable and experienced than I will respond. But those types rarely weigh in. It’s all too controversial, and people don’t like to sign up for mortgages of $800,000+ for a controversial neighborhood.

    So you’ll probably only get opinions from amateurs like me–a former Oakhurst resident who finally said “No more” to the outrageous taxes, to the constant din of nail guns, backhoes, and dump truck traffic, and to the new residents who would barely even speak to us “old timers”
    who lack even a teaching certificate let alone a law degree and who lived in homes they blithely referred to as “teardowns”.

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