Politics & Government

Property tax proposal bad news for Bibb budgets

ATLANTA — A backup plan has emerged in a legislative effort to slow property tax increases, one that wouldn’t require a constitutional referendum and would hit Bibb County government budgets particularly hard.

House Republican leaders still will try to pass House Resolution 1 today, calling for a statewide referendum to add annual limits in property value reassessments to the Georgia Constitution. But it would take a two-thirds majority in the Georgia House and Senate to pass that measure, a high bar to clear on a controversial resolution.

Enter House Bill 233, a measure to immediately freeze property tax values across the state. The two-year moratorium on increases would be implemented by the state government without a voter referendum, and it wouldn’t take a two-thirds majority vote in the House and Senate.

That means the Republican-dominated bodies could pass the bill without the support they’d need from Democrats to pass House Resolution 1.

“(We can freeze values) in the short run, with very tight restrictions,” said state Rep. Ed Lindsey, the sponsor for both measures.

Not everyone agrees.

“(House Bill) 233 is unconstitutional,” said state Rep. DuBose Porter, a Dublin Democrat and the House minority leader.

If House Bill 233 becomes law, it will put Bibb County’s local governments — and some taxpayers — in a bind, local leaders said. Due to a string of problems in the tax assessors office, Bibb hasn’t updated its tax digest since 2001. That means property values across the county are out of whack and the city of Macon, the Bibb County Commission and the Bibb school board take in less tax money than they probably would otherwise.

There’s also the danger of heavy state fines, which counties face when assessed property values get too far away from real market values.

Property taxes are based largely on two figures: a property’s assessed value and the local government’s millage rate. When values go up, the taxes go up, even if the millage rate stays the same. And though state law requires local governments to hold three public hearings when that happens, state Republicans have referred to tax increases based on reassessments alone as “back-door” tax increases.

They’ve promised to fight this phenomenon, particularly in fast growing areas, where property values increased so fast before the real estate bubble burst that some people had trouble paying their tax bills.

But in Bibb County, a moratorium on reassessments would be “a crisis,” said Bill Vaughn, chairman of the Macon-Bibb County Board of Tax Assessors. It would nullify a reassessment, due to be finished at the end of next month, that has cost the county nearly $2 million for an Ohio-based private contractor alone. That doesn’t include time spent by regular employees of the office, who are helping the contractor.

Not only that, but freezing property values at 2001 levels would mean new homeowners would continue to pay more taxes than they should, Bibb County Commissioner Elmo Richardson said. When a new home or building is built, it’s assessed. But older buildings — those that have been around since before the last countywide reassessment — haven’t had their values checked recently.

Both types of property owners pay taxes on the same millage rate, so the new property owner pays more while the person who owns an older home pays less, Richardson said.

“It would be inequitable across Bibb County, I think,” he said.

House Bill 233 would be retroactive to Jan. 1 and would lock in values until January 2011. The only exceptions would be for new growth, building improvements, rezonings and any decreases in property values.

There’s also an exemption in the bill for Houston County and other governments with millage rate caps, but not for Bibb’s situation.

Lindsey indicated he’s not likely to add one, though state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, said Wednesday that he’s working to address the situation. The bill could be voted on as soon as today in the House, which is scheduled to take up the issue of property reassessment caps this morning.

Telegraph staff writer Jennifer Burk contributed to this report. To contact writer Travis Fain, call 361-2702.