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Representatives of all four governing bodies in Grady County met jointly last Wednesday to discuss a comprehensive revaluation of all tracts of real property within the county as proposed by the Grady County Board of Tax Assessors.
The meeting was led by Board of Assessors Chairman Prentiss Mitchell along with assessors Julian Rawls and John Tillis, and Grady County Chief Appraiser Wendy Sadler. Participating in the joint session were Grady County Commission Chairman Phillip Drew, county administrator J.C. (Buddy) Johnson III, county finance director Holly Murkerson, Grady County Board of Education Chairman Derrick Majors, school superintendent Dr. Kermit Gilliard, Grady County School System finance officer Dan Broome, Cairo Mayor Howard Thrower III, Cairo City Council Finance Committee Chairman James H. (Jimmy) Douglas, Cairo city manager Chris Addleton, Whigham Mayor George Trulock and Whigham city clerk Lisa Calhoun.
The Board of Assessors recently solicited proposals from private vendors to assist them in correcting issues with the assessors office that have existed since at least 2013.
Assessor chairman Mitchell and chief appraiser Sadler explained to the officials present that the schedules that the office uses to record improvements made by local homeowners and others are out of date and need to be updated.
The assessors received only one proposal, which was from Georgia Mass Appraisal Solutions & Services Inc., of Norwood, Ga. The total cost of the three year project is $491,000.
Over a three year period, the firm will conduct a field review of one-third of all parcels in the county, measure and list all new construction, analyze all sales and make recommendations to the county on areas where value adjustments are warranted. In addition, the firm’s representatives will conduct five days of training for the chief appraiser and her staff each year of the three year contract.
In year three, the new pricing schedules will be implemented to include all land and improvement pricing schedules in the assessors computer software. Additionally, the firm will provide an appraiser registered with the Georgia Real Estate Appraiser Board to participate in hearings and appeal review. A total of five days of service by the appraiser is included in the base cost, but other days are subject to a per diem of $750 for appeal preparation and Board of Equalization hearings and a $1,000 per diem for appeal preparation and Superior Court hearings, if required.
Approximately six months ago, Sadler and the board of assessors discovered that the schedules in the county’s software had not been updated to reflect market prices since 2013 and for possibly longer than that.
Sadler explained that when the assessors transitioned to the state’s new system in 2013 the county’s data went in on override.
“So, it went into the new system with the prices from the old system and our schedules have not been changed to reflect increased prices,” Sadler said.
“Doesn’t it catch up if you sell?” Whigham Mayor George Trulock asked. Trulock used the example of a house being on the books at $100,000 but selling for $150,000, and asked whether the house would then have a new fair market value of $150,000.
According to the chief appraiser, that is not how the system works.
“If a house we have on the books for $100,000 sells for $200,000, our field staff goes out to see what we may have missed. If there are no improvements we missed, then the only thing we can do is to adjust something we don’t need to adjust to get the value up and that’s what the state refers to as chasing sales. We are not allowed to do that,” Sadler said.
According to Sadler, the schedules reflect the big part of the problem. She said that a bathroom, for example, may be valued at $10,000, but in the county’s schedules it only has a value of $2,000.
“Our schedules just are not up to where the values reflect today’s cost and today’s market,” the chief appraiser said.
Using a personal example, she said that she had spent approximately $10,000 on a new well, but the value for new wells in the county’s schedule is only $5,000.
Whigham city clerk Lisa Calhoun said that the cost of a new septic tank is approximately $5,000, but she noticed the value, according to the county, is only $2,000.
Whigham Mayor Trulock said he suspected the majority of local taxpayers were like him and thought that if he added a $50,000 addition to his home then his home’s fair market value would automatically increase by $50,000.
The chief appraiser said that is not how the system works and pointed out that the values of property where owners have not made improvements are impacted by the improvements made by others.
“So, what have we got to do to get on an even keel? Re-evaluate every property in the county and get new numbers in for everyone? What will keep that adjusted in the future?” the Whigham mayor asked.
Sadler noted that the comprehensive re-evaluation of all parcels was the only way to bring all real property to current fair market value. She also said that the training provided by G.M.A.S.S. would provide her and the staff the know-how to maintain the schedules and values in the future.
Compounding the situation for the board of assessors was the death of former chief appraiser Susan Bennett and the lack of training opportunities for Sadler due to COVID-19.
“I had to complete 120 hours of instruction just to sit on this board and this young lady (Sadler), she hasn’t had hardly any and we are asking her to be the chief appraiser. I contacted the head of the Department of Revenue in Atlanta and he put us in contact with the regional director for the Department of Revenue out of Columbus and he has been a big help to Wendy. We have over 14,000 parcels that have to be assessed in this county and we never had the manpower to do it,” Chairman Mitchell said.
“We’ve got some properties that haven’t been assessed at all and those folks are paying zero taxes. That concerns me more than anything,” county administrator Johnson commented.
Mayor Trulock predicted it would be a tough sell for local leaders to sell the public on the project because they would think an increase in value would result in higher taxes.
“If these folks have made improvements and haven’t been paying taxes on those improvements then they should be paying more. However, we have a responsibility, we all have a responsibility, to lower our millage rates based on the increased values,” administrator Johnson said.
“From the city’s behalf, and I can only speak for myself, the city (of Cairo) welcomes this,” said Councilman Douglas. “I suspect the values in the city are lower than most places. The city will give 100 percent support I’m sure and we are going to reduce the millage to whatever it takes.”
School system finance officer Broome said that the board of education had traditionally determined the amount of money needed to fund its budget and then would set the millage rate accordingly.
“We are not looking to gouge the constituents. However, we do have to be careful because whenever we lower our millage we can lose state funding,” Broome said.
“This is encouraging that this is happening,” Broome added.
Officials had questions about when and how the revisions and reassessments would be added to the system. They also questioned if all categories of property would be looked at each year or just certain segments.
“We certainly want a tide effect and not a tidal wave effect,” administrator Johnson said.
“They should do one-third of each each year and the rate will slowly get to where it’s supposed to be and keep it equitable,” Broome said.
“The issue is, values need to be at fair market value. I see this every day in my line of business. A house across the street from me sells for $200,000 but it’s on the digest at $100,000. If the digest goes up 30 percent, theoretically, the millage rate should come down 30 percent,” Councilman Douglas stated. He said that if all values are at the current fair market value it would be fairer to all taxpayers.
Johnson suggested once G.M.A.S.S. is contracted with in January then officials could come and meet with local leaders to explain the process and how it will be implemented.
According to the county administrator, he will be recommending the $142,000 for the first year of work to be budgeted in the county’s 2022 operating budget. Johnson plans to bring forward the G.M.A.S.S. proposal to the county commission during the board’s budget preparation later this year.