If you’re a homeowner in Fulton County, chances are that you received a shocking property tax assessment last month. Because the county has, essentially, undervalued homes across the board for a decade, almost everyone is now facing the prospect of higher property taxes.
For some, their property has been significantly overvalued in the new assessment, and those folks should be sure to appeal as soon as possible. For others, the increase may be significant but also in keeping with the increasing value of their home. But for some of our neighbors who have lived in their homes for decades, the increase represents anxiety and fear…and the real possibility that they cannot remain in their lifelong residence. This raises the greatest concern about the shift in property taxes – seniors and people with disabilities who have lived in their homes since the Carter administration or before, have made no significant improvements and now face rising housing costs that exceed their fixed incomes.
No one likes paying taxes, but our property taxes in Atlanta pay for essential community services – police, fire and rescue, public schools and road maintenance, just to name a few. We can’t eliminate them altogether, and a broad reduction without replacing the revenue from other sources only damages our community. I agree that the City of Atlanta, Fulton County and Atlanta Public Schools must be responsible with their budgets and there should be accountability for those organizations. Still, the appropriate funding for community safety, education and infrastructure is vital to our district.
However, as a community, we must think about how to protect the most vulnerable among us. How can we levy fair property taxes without creating such a disparity that we force our neighbors to move away? I favor solutions like the one implemented in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward, a neighborhood with many lifelong residents that experienced soaring property values because of gentrification. Create a special exemption for seniors and people with disabilities who have lived in their homes for long period, have not made recent, significant improvements, and fall into a defined income stratum that indicates need. This approach allows us to keep seniors in our communities without overburdening other residents with the need to make up a significant decrease in tax revenue.
There are three property tax measures on the ballot this November. Two of these measures increase homestead exemptions, which provides a small amount of property tax relief for many. The third is HB820 which will be promoted as a way to cap future property tax assessment increases at no more that 2.6%. I know that sounds tempting, but I implore everyone to become familiar with all aspects of this measure. First, the 2.6% cap only applies to the City of Atlanta portion of property taxes, which is less than half of the total property tax bill. Next, it does not regulate millage rates, which means that while the assessment might be capped, the millage rates can still be increased at a higher rate resulting in a revenue neutral scenario or an actual tax increase. Finally, it’s important that you understand the deal that was struck in order to get this measure through the General Assembly and onto the statewide ballot in November: this measure allows the City of Atlanta to get out of its legal requirement to notify the public of property tax increases (in the event they do not roll back millage rate to be revenue neutral) and to hold public hearings when the overall tax digest increases due to properties being assessed at higher values. In other words, it effectively allows de facto tax increases with no public notice. During a time when many of us are deeply concerned about charges of corruption at City Hall, I do not support a measure that requires less transparency from that same city government.