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Property tax values lower than planned

LAWRENCEVILLE -- Gwinnett's tax digest is in such dire straits that Chief Appraiser Steve Pruitt began a briefing to county commissioners with "Don't shoot the messenger."

The news may be so bad that commissioners could have to consider another round of service cuts -- or another millage rate increase -- to balance the government's budget.

With more than 150,000 residential and commercial property re-evaluations, the tax digest, all told, could slip by 10 percent.

With the value-offset exemption freezing county taxes for residences the last several years, the result is a net 8 percent drop -- that is, before the expected 10,000 or so appeals likely to come in the next month, Pruitt said.

That is higher than the 6 to 7 percent drop officials anticipated when setting a millage rate increase last year.

"Things are not improving, and we'll have to address that," Chairman Charles Bannister said. "We are still trying to disseminate through the information and come to a bottom line in the result. ... It's something we have to pay attention to every week."

In more than 100,000 re-evaluations of residential properties in the mail or soon to be in the mail, the average homeowner will see a 17 percent drop in value or $35,000.

Gwinnett's higher end communities including the Sugarloaf Country Club, Chateau Elan, River Club and Sweet Bottom Plantation saw dips in the hundreds of thousands, he said.

This year, nearly 30,000 homeowners and more than 4,000 commercial property owners filed property tax returns, requesting a downward evaluation, Pruitt said, doubling last year's record 15,000 returns filed.

While economist Alfie Meek saw a slight -- and suspect, he admitted -- bright spot in the economy with an increase in building permits issued the first three months of 2010, Pruitt said it could take years for the county tax digest to get any better.

Even if the economy improves by the end of the year, he said, the tax digest is likely to take another dip in 2011.

"2012 is probably the first time we can stop the decline," he said, warning of another possible commercial bubble coming.

Pruitt said his office is currently on track to have property tax bills in the mail July 15 -- the typical billing date, although officials missed it last year when commissioners waited to approve a rate.

But if the number of appeals is greater than expected, there could be a delay, he said.