Current tax dispute differs from one of early '90s
Latest court filings could cost county thousands

LAWRENCEVILLE - Gwinnett's tax delay is the first since the early 1990s, but back then, the mess took three years to straighten out.

For the first time in more than 15 years, a judge will have to step in for the county's taxes to be collected, after county and city officials filed petitions in court last week.

The process is being initiated because commissioners have yet to set a millage rate nearly two months after voting down a proposed increase. With agencies across Gwinnett concerned that the delay could outlast reserve accounts and affect payroll for police officers and teachers, the county is seeking a temporary collection, where a judge would set a rate for this billing cycle, and once the final amount is set, taxpayers could receive another bill or a refund.

The situation is much different than the 1990s, when a major reassessment of property values across Gwinnett caused a massive number of appeals and a question over the county's tax digest, Assistant County Administrator Lisa Johnsa said.

While the county now reassesses property annually, rotating properties every three years, the 1991 re-evaluation was the first in 25 years, jarring residents who received a major increase, Johnsa said.

By the time the bills were due, 23,353 properties were under appeal, or about 17.9 percent of the total number of parcels. The amount accounted for 13.2 percent of the county's tax digest.

For the tax digest to be certified by the state, Johnsa explained, the law only allows up to 5 percent of either the number or value of properties to be in appeal during a major revaluation year. In a year where only a partial update is complete, the law allows for 3 percent.

With the county well above the limit, Judge Homer Stark, who is now retired, approved a temporary collection order on Aug. 26, 1991, allowing bills to be issued based on the 1990 tax digest levels.

After the appeals were completed, county officials issued new bills for all county property owners based on the 1991 tax digest and values, she said.

But by 1992, the major update still had people filing appeals.

"It was probably still some of the spillover," said Johnsa, who had recently moved from the tax commissioner's office to the county's finance department at the time.

By that August, 2.9 percent of properties were under appeal, but the amount accounted for 4.67 percent of the county's tax value, above the 3 percent threshold. The same problem arose in 1993.

But because the number had somewhat stabilized, the judge in those years, Richard Winegarden, agreed to allow the county to use the current year's digest. That meant only the properties whose values were changed in the appeal process were issued new bills or refunds.

Johnsa said there was no way to determine how many people would get a second tax bill due to this year's temporary collection order.

Judge Timothy Hamil, who was assigned the county's case last week, is expected to return from vacation Monday and could determine a hearing date for the matter.

Because the issue this time involved the millage rate, Johnsa said the determination will be whether county commissioners stick to the temporary value Hamil assigns.

"The fact of the matter is, this is a temporary order," she said. "There will be some administrative issues when you deal with a temporary collection order."

Paula Martin, a spokeswoman for Tax Commissioner Katherine Meyer, said the cost of sending two sets of bills is hard to determine, especially in terms of administrative costs.

In paper, printing and postage, the tax commissioner estimates the original billing to cost about $165,000, which could double if the entire county needs a second bill.

Also not included is the cost to go to court for the matter.

The county's petition will resolve tax collection issues for that government as well as Gwinnett County Public Schools and the cities of Berkeley Lake, Dacula, Grayson, Lawrenceville, Lilburn, Snellville and Sugar Hill, for which the tax commissioner bills.

The cities of Duluth, Buford and Suwanee also filed a petition for a temporary collection order, asking for the county's tax digest to be approved so those cities can issue bills. Judge Billy Ray scheduled a hearing for that case on Aug. 12.

While Braselton and Rest Haven do not charge property taxes, it is unclear if the filings will clear up the tax situation for Auburn, Loganville and Norcross.