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Legislator angry over tax values

LAWRENCEVILLE - Three years ago, Bobby Reese went to the Board of Equalization armed with a thick folder of data to protest an increase in his property tax value.

This year, the state legislator is considering making that fight public.

Reese is angry his Sugar Hill home's value rose by nearly $30,000, and he's considering holding public hearings and evaluating the state law.

"It's a back-door tax increase, and it's not right," Reese said. He pointed to a newspaper article where school officials said they would increase teacher pay next year. "Guess where that money's coming from? It's from a huge increase in assessments."

But Gwinnett County Chief Assessor Steve Pruitt said the county is simply following the laws set by the legislature.

About 68,000 change of assessment notices were mailed Friday, and Pruitt said the assessor's office phones have been ringing regularly all week.

Pruitt said the Georgia Department of Revenue requires each county reassess properties to ensure at least 90 percent of the fair market value is assessed for state taxes.

With home values rising throughout the growing suburban county, about a third of Gwinnett's houses are reappraised each year. This year, about 370 neighborhoods were chosen based on home sales exceeding taxable property values, he explained.

"We don't have the resources to do (individual) appraisals," Pruitt said. "We do appraisals on groups of houses. Yes, we can be high on some of them, and, yes, we can be low on some of them."

Reese, a real estate broker who bought his home in 1992 for $110,000, said his assessment rose from $156,000 to $185,000.

Three years ago, when his house was last reappraised, Reese appealed and received a $10,000 reduction. He plans on going through the same process this year, especially when a search of his community, The Springs, revealed an average list price of $168,042 and an average sale price of $167,645.

Pruitt said appraisers often look at larger groups of homes than individual subdivisions.

Last year, 3,646 formal appeals were filed and appraisals were changed in at least 85 to 90 percent of them, Pruitt said.

As far as the "back-door tax increase" comment, Deputy County Administrator Mike Comer pointed to a state law and a local policy that protect taxpayers from large increases in county taxes.

First, the legislature passed a local law allowing citizens to apply for a value-offset exemption, which freezes property assessments for county taxes in the year homeowners apply.

"The Legislature passed it and made it applicable to the county taxes only," Comer said. That means state, school and city taxes can still rise on a tax bill.

Another state law mandates that districts roll back millage rates to make up for increases in property values, or the jurisdiction must advertise the rate as a tax increase. While the county government has rolled back its millage rate each year since 2000, the Gwinnett County school board has not.

Reese said he has not settled on a path to publicly fight the tax assessment increases, and he said a one-month deadline to appeal makes the problem difficult to tackle, especially during the last few days of a legislative session.

But he is considering hosting public hearings, and Pruitt said he would be happy to have assessors there to explain the process.

"We have followed the letter of the law in meeting the requirements to have a property tax digest for Gwinnett County," Pruitt said.