UPDATED: Elected officials promise to roll back property taxes to offset higher assessments

·6 min read

Jul. 8—Surprised but not shocked is how Varnell resident Chris Ryan described his reaction to getting the 2022 assessment on his home.

"I've read about how housing prices are going up," he said. "I've got a friend who is trying to buy a house, so I knew (my assessment) was going up. But I wasn't expecting it to go up by a third."

Whitfield County officials said the assessed value of residential properties rose an average of 22% this year. Commercial and industrial assessments rose an average of 15%. Assessments are set by the county Board of Assessors. Members of that board are appointed by the county Board of Commissioners. But the assessors are independent of the county and have to follow rules and regulations set by the state.

Chief Appraiser Ashley O'Donald said in an email that members of the Board of Assessors did not think they could delay an assessment for another year.

"The assessors office is required, per the state constitution (O.C.G.A. 48-5-6), to assess property every year at fair market value (FMV)," he wrote.

But if the tax digest is in compliance with the state there is no penalty if the Board of Assessors does not do a full reassessment.

"In 2020 the Board of Assessors was prepared to implement a county-wide residential revaluation," he wrote. "When the (COVID-19) pandemic hit, the board decided to hold values steady in anticipation of a market slowdown. In 2021, the board voted to increase values only in areas with the most sales activity. The real estate market continued to increase throughout those years."

"Our final 2021 (Georgia) Department of Audits and Accounts Sales Ratio Study is yet to be released," O'Donald wrote. "However, the preliminary report we have reviewed appears to show our sales ratios will be out of compliance with state-mandated guidelines. This is a direct result of delaying county-wide revaluations."

"Sales data, from the first two quarters of 2022, does not indicate a slowdown in the real estate market," he wrote. "The demand for homes still far outpaces the current supply of properties for sale in Whitfield County. We anticipate increases in interest rates may cause the volume of sales to decrease through the remainder of the year, but due to short supply, we do not predict sales prices to decrease significantly. However, if sales prices do begin to decline, the Board of Assessors will adjust values accordingly."

Dalton resident Mike Johnson said his assessment rose by a fifth.

"I was not happy about this because I thought that's how much my property taxes would rise," he said. "But I've found out that (the county government) can roll back the tax rate. They really need to do that."

Board of Commissioners Chairman Jevin Jensen said the commissioners do plan to roll back the county's property tax rate in August to offset any revenue gains from higher property assessments.

"We have to treat everyone equally," Jensen said. "Unfortunately, with the smaller 15% commercial and industrial increase and a wide range of individual residential property value increases, the rollback will not completely eliminate the impact for everyone, especially for someone like me whose assessment went up 38%."

Jensen said the commissioners don't know what the final value of the tax digest will be because property owners have 45 days to appeal their assessments. Property owners can file an appeal online at whitfieldassessor.com/appeals.

Jensen said after the digest is finalized, the commissioners will set the tax rate.

"We want to get as close as we can to that 22%, maybe more if we can," he said. "We want to help everyone as much as possible. Commissioners are actively working on a better long-term solution to present to the voters very soon. We regret the impact on working families and seniors and are determined to protect against these increases in the future."

Dalton Mayor David Pennington said he is certain City Council members will roll back the city's tax rate.

"The problem is that residential has a larger increase than commercial and industrial," he said. "Commercial and industrial dominates (the city's) tax digest. We have to give everyone the same tax cut, so commercial and industrial will get a tax cut and residential will see a tax increase."

The city's tax digest is about 70% commercial and industrial and 30% residential.

"The (Whitfield County Board of Education) is aware of the reported significant rise in property tax assessments," said Whitfield County Schools Superintendent Mike Ewton. "We are currently awaiting the tax digest summary data from the tax assessors' office so that we can have accurate information before determining (our) next steps."

Pat Holloway, chief of staff for Dalton Public Schools, said the members of the Dalton Board of Education have not made any decisions on the property tax rate.

"The board approved the final fiscal year 2023 budget for the district at the June 13 board meeting," she said. "They have not had any discussion about the millage rate because they haven't yet seen any official information on the tax digest. They are not scheduled to set a final millage rate until their Aug. 15 meeting."

Jensen said the commissioners are working on the "long-term" solution to soaring residential assessments.

"We are looking at a strategy that no matter how much your assessment increases — if your (increase) is 50% and your neighbor is 20% and somebody else is zero — your homestead exemption will automatically adjust, so we don't have to roll back the tax rate. It will automatically roll back, and it won't be an across-the-board cut where some people get nothing and others get a lot. This will take a lot of work. It will require a change in (state) law, but we believe there is a way to do this."

Jensen said the commissioners hope to have a formal proposal in 30 days.

The plan would have to be approved by the state legislature, which won't meet again until January 2023, so it would not affect this year's property taxes but could take effect before next year's assessments are done.

State Rep. Kasey Carpenter, R-Dalton, said about 20 Georgia counties have such a system where homestead exemptions automatically adjust to changes in assessments.

"This model is out there," he said. "It has been tried."

Carpenter said he is confident the legislature would approve a bill to allow Whitfield County's homestead exemption to automatically adjust if voters approve the concept.

"It would be local legislation to place this on the ballot as a referendum," he said. "The voters would decide, and I feel confident they would approve it."

Carpenter said the bill would likely allow the measure to be placed on the ballot during a special election, so voters could decide the measure as quickly as possible.

State Sen. Chuck Payne, R-Dalton, said he wasn't aware of the commissioners' plan but is eager to see their proposal when it is finished and discuss it with them.