Sticker shock – Decatur grumbling over assessments
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.”