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Bibb homeowners brace for new property values

This year’s property assessment notices may be about as welcome as visiting in-laws, but like in-laws, they don’t need an invitation.

New Bibb County property values are headed to your mailbox any day now, if they haven’t already arrived. Assessment notices were mailed Friday.

As expected, many people will see an increase. Values for all real property saw a median increase of about 33 percent, according to the Macon-Bibb County Tax Assessors Office. Residential and agricultural properties alone saw a median increase of about 28 percent.

The value that property owners see on their assessment notices is one part of an equation that will determine how much they pay in property taxes this year. Other factors at play include city, county and school board budgets, as well as how those entities set their millage rates.

Revaluations are supposed to be revenue neutral, and state law requires local governments to roll back the millage rate to account for any growth in the tax digest. If governments want to keep the extra revenue, they are required to hold three public hearings advertising a tax increase.

City and county officials have indicated that decreased revenues and tight budgets may prevent them from rolling back the millage rate far enough to prevent a tax increase. The school board just started wading through its fiscal 2010 budget this month.

“We’ll have to start thinking, at least in our minds, how much we’ll roll that back,” Bibb County Commission Chairman Sam Hart said after a recent budget hearing.

The 2009 values are a result of 1 1/2 years of work in the tax assessors office. In October 2007, the Bibb County Commission contracted with Tyler CLT Co., an Ohio-based appraisal firm, to conduct the revaluation at a cost of nearly $2 million.

To determine the value of all 68,000 parcels in Bibb, data verifiers viewed each property to check its characteristics, which include measurements and improvements, Chief Appraiser Andrea Crutchfield said. Then, cost tables were analyzed and updated.

Appraisers then reviewed the information for each parcel and entered necessary corrections into a computer, which helped determine the value, she said. Values were compared to recent home sales to verify their accuracy.

The whole process of working with CLT provided county employees with valuable training, said Bill Vaughn, chairman of the tax assessors board. Over the past year, the office has added five appraiser jobs, positioning it to perform its own revaluations, he said. New software also will ease the revaluation process in the future, Crutchfield said.

“In the future, we definitely will do all of the revals in-house, which is the way it’s supposed to be,” Vaughn said.

SUCCESS OF REVAL CRUCIAL

A lot is riding on the completion of this revaluation.

City, county and school board officials are counting on the revaluation to result in a new tax digest. The current tax digest has not been overhauled since 2001, when the last successful revaluation occurred.

Because of the outdated digest, some property owners have not been paying their fair share of taxes, and some have been paying more than their fair share, Vaughn said. The county also has paid — and still faces — hundreds of thousands of dollars in state fines.

Despite an expected surge of appeals, assessors hope a tax digest will be ready by the time tax bills are mailed, which typically is in September. If it starts to look like appeals can’t be reconciled in time — and it’s possible they won’t be because of high volume — the city, county and school board may have to send out a temporary tax billing, officials said.

“It makes (budgeting) difficult because you don’t know with any degree of certainty the revenue coming in,” Hart said.

Many of Bibb’s problems with the tax digest date to 2006 when Bibb last tried a countywide revaluation. The fiasco generated more than 18,000 appeals, led to the abandonment of the revaluation and forced the county to revert to the 2001 property values for its tax digest.

A new chief appraiser — Jim Davis, who has since left the job — and a new board of assessors were ushered in over the next year to clean up the mess. Private company Tyler CLT Co. was brought in to conduct a new revaluation.

The state has fined Bibb for having an undervalued tax digest every year since the failed revaluation. The county has appealed the 2006 and 2007 fines, which total $361,000, in hopes of paying a lesser amount. The hearing for those appeals was held last week, although no decision has been made, Crutchfield said. Another fine is expected for the 2008 digest.

“We lose in not having an appropriate digest to show the growth and collect taxes associated with that growth, and we lose from having to pay the fines,” Hart said. “We lose on both ends.”

Bibb could face an additional $340,000 in penalties if it does not produce an acceptable tax digest within the next three years.

The new revaluation is expected to bring the county’s digest in the line with the state’s guidelines, and the successful completion of it should help Bibb avoid future penalties, Crutchfield said.

The whole ordeal has created public distrust surrounding the revaluation process. The board of assessors has acknowledged as much.

In the weeks leading up to completion of the revaluation, Crutchfield and Vaughn embarked on a public information campaign. The pair met with various professional and civic organizations to explain the revaluation and take questions.

Crutchfield said she’s confident in the new values, and Vaughn has assured the board of tax assessors’ commitment to the project.

“We will stay with this process until we get it right — until we get it done,” he said.

To contact writer Jennifer Burk, call 744-4345.

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