Atlanta mayoral wannabes rap Fulton's property tax 'freeze'
Gentrification is just a fact of life in a thriving urban environment,' says one candidate
HANDLING A TAXING SITUATION: John Eaves says that thousands of people tried to appeal their initial property tax assessments this year.Courtesy John EavesFulton County residents needn't worry about the jacked-up property taxes that the assessor's office threatened them with this year, thanks to the chairman of the county commission, John Eaves. The candidate for Atlanta mayor, however, is catching some flak from competitors for his remedy to constituents' concerns.
Eaves lobbed the idea of keeping residential property tax assessments at 2016 levels, following an uproar from Fulton homeowners who learned they might have to pay up to four times what they paid the year prior. His commission dug the idea, and on June 21 voted unanimously to approve it. The move, called a "freeze," means tax assessors who appraise Fulton homes won't be able to raise property values and subsequently, taxes to what many considered burdensome levels. Eaves says he's looking out for the poor, elderly, and long-planted residents who might otherwise have been yanked from their homes by gentrification.
Eaves tells Creative Loafing that thousands of people tried to appeal their initial assessments this year, and almost a quarter of Fulton property owners were looking down the barrel of tax bills that would cost more than double those of 2016. For some elderly people living on fixed incomes, he says, that spike could mean choosing to pay for their homes or their health. "They would say, ???I have to make a choice between my medicine or my taxes.'"
But the spike in property assessments this year isn't necessarily a bad thing; it's merely indicative of a burgeoning local housing market. The three mayoral candidates CL interviewed for this story all agree safeguards are needed to protect the city and county, in Eaves' case from mass displacement, but Eaves' freeze isn't sitting well with some of his rivals in the race.
Atlanta Council President Ceasar Mitchell, another contender, seems peeved that Eaves is being hailed as a hero for fixing a problem caused by the neglect of his county commission.
"The freeze is almost what you have to do at this point," says Stefan Turkheimer, a spokesman for Mitchell's campaign, adding that the commission has been lackadaisical in updating its tax digest, as it's expected to do annually. "He's sort of using this as a ???get out of jail' card," he says.
Turkheimer says Mitchell's camp is worried that stunting the property assessment rates could "screw Atlanta Public Schools, the city, and all the other Fulton school systems. So APS will have to dig into its reserve fund, which is only supposed to be for recessions," he says. But that's not the case, says Eaves: "We'll still meet the funding needs of Atlanta, APS, and Fulton's school system." The math he's seen suggests his plan will rake in enough tax cash from new construction to quell those worries.
Eaves says he understands the county's tax digest could take a hit in revenue, but the new parcels, combined with dollars from commercial developments, should keep the schools and the city in good shape.
Mary Norwood, the Atlanta councilwoman who's led the polls in the race to replace Mayor Kasim Reed, whipped up a plan of her own to combat the worries of displacement prompted by Fulton residents' sticker shock: She wants to keep the yearly assessments from rising too sharply.
"Norwood's property tax cap proposal means the most the assessed value used to calculate City of Atlanta, Fulton County, and Atlanta Public Schools property taxes each could increase in any given year would be 3 percent," according to a statement from her camp.
As Eaves points out, Norwood doesn't actually have the authority to determine how the county's tax assessors do their jobs, although she has some leverage to adjust Atlanta's millage rates - that's the fancy term for calculating how much people pay in taxes based on their property values. Gentrification, Norwood says, "is just a fact of life in a thriving urban environment" that she hopes to shield less-privileged Atlantans from. "Her solutions aim to make sure seniors, first-time homeowners, and less-advantaged citizens with strong ties to their neighborhoods do not have to leave their homes due to rising property values," according to her campaign spokespeople.
But Mitchell's camp says the councilwoman's pitch is wack. Capping the yearly increase at 3 percent would dangerously devalue Atlanta's housing market, since tax assessors wouldn't be able to appropriately assess the value of properties.
Mitchell isn't opposed to limiting the yearly hikes, and Turkheimer says his boss is open to imposing a more reasonable restriction. "A cap could be good," he tells CL. "But you can look at what the average property price was in 2008 and add 3 percent per year and never get to a number that amounts to anything near current values."
Atlanta's revenue stream, Turkheimer says, relies heavily on two sources, property tax and sales tax. "If property tax revenue goes down, they have to offset it by raising the sales tax," which would impact poor people more than the rich, he adds.
Everyone in this argument claims they're looking out for the city's unfortunate and elderly populations. But Eaves' freeze will only last the year, and he'll be stepping down from his commission post on August 25 qualifying time for the serious candidates to put full-fledged effort into his bid for mayor. He says his cronies will maintain his taxing ambitions when he's gone, although there's still about four months until election day. The bigwigs in this contest still need to flesh out the intricacies of their tax plans (and other plans) so prospective voters can begin to narrow the list of candidates.
But earlier this week, for some odd reason, the City Council scrapped from its schedule a work session to explain the whole hullabaloo of tax assessments. We'll update the article, should we find out why.
Check back weekly for our take on the jam-packed race to place Atlanta's next mayor.