COVINGTON - More than 95 percent of Newton County property owners will see a reduction in the value of their properties, and therefore, their tax bills, when assessment notices are mailed out April 15, according to Chief Appraiser Tommy Knight.
"While that may seem like good news on the surface, the reality is most owners have lost some or all equity they may have had in their property. That is certainly not good news for anyone," Knight said.
An increase in foreclosures and the decline of the housing market are just part of an "endless list" of reasons values are decreasing, he said.
Tax Assessors offices across the state are reporting an increase in property tax returns filings.
Property tax returns allow property owners to challenge the assessed value of their property from the previous year before tax bills are sent out for the current year.
Typically, the Newton County office receives about 150 per year, but this year, that has more than doubled, to 325. That's still less than 1 percent of the 43,735 taxable parcels within the county.
"I will say that most property owners making these returns were surprised to find that we had already made reductions prior to their visit," Knight said.
Knight attributes the increase in returns to media reports on foreclosures and decreasing property values. He said the media often makes blanket statements about property values throughout the entire state, region or country, which may not hold true when the data is examined on a county-by-county basis.
Property owners who have filed a return will get an explanation of the revaluation process and must provide a reason they think their value should decrease, Knight said. Once assessments go out, it is too late to file and the value is locked in for another year, with no appeal right for the property owner, he said.
In Newton County, properties are revalued each year.
"There are always questions and confusion about why we don't revalue every three years. While that is what the general law says, we revalue every year so we can stay up to date with the current market," Knight said. "The best example is the current market we're experiencing. If we only revalued every third year, and this was not a year within that cycle, that would mean all values would stay the same as last year's despite the declining market."
The Tax Assessors Office uses a neighborhood system to revalue properties. The county is divided into 500 segments, some of which consist of actual neighborhoods and others of properties along the same corridor or within the same geographic area.
"By doing this, we are better able to determine what is going on in each market area with true market sales and foreclosures. As everyone knows, Newton County has experienced more foreclosures than ever. By using the neighborhood system we are able to track these foreclosures in great detail to know how they're affecting each market area," Knight said.
Knight gave the following example to illustrate his point: If Neighborhood A and B each have 100 lots and there are 18 foreclosures in Neighborhood A but only two in Neighborhood B, "we believe neighborhood A is declining in value more so than Neighborhood B and we will reduce it more as well," he said.
The Tax Assessors Office is audited quarterly by the state, with the summary results turned over to the county. The audit, called a sales ratio study, monitors how closely local assessed values are to what is selling in the marketplace.
The study doesn't take into account foreclosures, but the Georgia General Assembly may decide to change that given current conditions, Knight said.
As for what effect the decrease in property values will have on the county budget, Knight said that's beyond the boundaries of his job.
"The law is very clear that we deal with the values of property and any applicable exemptions. I never concern myself with revenue as I'm revaluing property," he said.
A shortfall in property tax revenue is dealt with by the local governing body, he said.
Newton County Administrative Officer John Middleton said commissioners are aware of the expected revenue decline. Revenue projections for the fiscal year 2010 budget will not be final until next week, he said.
Knight said residents often don't realize the Tax Assessors Office does not report to the Board of Commissioners - they answer to the Board of Tax Assessors.
"I'm sure there are certain counties that revalue based on political or monetary needs; however, Newton County is not one of those," Knight said. "As chief appraiser I can honestly say I've never been approached by an elected official requesting that I value property inappropriately. They have always respected the job my staff and I do regarding the tax digest."
Crystal Tatum can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.