FULTON COUNTY, Ga. - Fulton County has been embattled by homeowners quick to complain that their property taxes are too high because they believe county officials set their property values too high. Now, critics are questioning the fairness of Fulton’s commercial property values.
A review of high-end commercial sales by Channel 2 Action News and our investigative partners at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and AJC.com found evidence that many big commercial properties sold for double, triple, even more than quadruple the amount Fulton County said they were worth the year they were sold.
Critics, including retired businessman Julian Bene, are in dispute with Fulton’s chief appraiser over the fairness of those assigned values.
“What we're seeing is rigged against residents in favor of the big money crowd,” Bene told Channel 2 investigative reporter Richard Belcher.
Chief appraiser Dwight Robinson would not go on camera but told Belcher by phone there may be a few exceptions, but his office gets it right.
Bene peaked Belcher’s interest after he researched about 50 commercial property sales last summer. Bene said residential values have risen to about market value, but commercial properties had not.
“What I was finding again and again was that these offices, hotels, apartments and so forth were selling for three or four or even five times what they were assessed for,” Bene said. “Residents of this town are being made fools of by the big money interests, the big property owners, who are not paying their fair whack.”
“My taxes doubled this year,” said Fulton County resident Robert Sommers.
Sommers bought his Berkley Park home in northwest Atlanta 14 years ago. He’s seen a lot of development in the city’s Howell Mill corridor. This year is the first year he’s appealed his tax bill.
Channel 2 showed Sommers their analysis of recent sales.
“That’s seemingly what they’re doing to the residents basing [appraisals] on sales prices in the area,” Sommers said. “It doesn’t seem to be correlating in the commercial sense.”
Channel 2 and the AJC asked Databank Atlanta for a list of high dollar commercial sales. Journalists reviewed those sales and researched county appraisal numbers for 264 of them. Of those 264, 175 of them sold for 50 percent more than the county's appraisal that same year and 119 of those sold for more than 100 percent higher than Fulton’s same-year appraisal.
Some examples include the Georgia Power operations center on Ralph McGill Boulevard, which sold for more than six times the county’s listed appraised value. The Krog Street Market development sold for more than four times the county’s value and Buckhead apartment development Modera Mill Creek sold for nearly four and a half times the county’s listed value.
By phone, Robinson balked at Channel 2 and the AJC for using 2018 sales in their analysis. He also said many properties, including the Modera Mill Creek, use Atlanta Development Authority bonds that impact the county’s assessment. Robinson also said many commercial property owners have the resources to pay lawyers to ask the county for an income-based approach to assess value.
Robinson also contends the overall digest is at 87 percent of fair market value right now and most of the transactions we examined involved properties whose appraised values were held down by court order, a decision by a board of equalization.
A statement sent to Channel 2 by a Fulton County spokesperson on behalf of the board of assessors stated:
"In assessing Fulton County Commercial Properties, the Office of the Tax Assessor follows state law in assessing each property at fair market value. Development Authority parcels are considered sale-lease-back parcels and full value is not assessed until the year after the final certificate of occupancy is issued.
“Fulton County has a complex real estate portfolio and our goal is to comply with the law and treat each property owner fairly. Over the last two years, Fulton County has invested more than $2.5 million in improvements in our property tax system, with additional investments planned for 2019.”
Bene acknowledges that some of his and our individual findings may be erroneous, but he's convinced the overall pattern shows that commercial properties are getting a break.
“They can explain it, but they can't explain it away,” he said
Fulton County Commissioner Lee Morris told Belcher his skepticism of commercial values is decades old.
“My thought really not has changed from 20 or 30 years ago, that the commercial property owners tend to not pay on real fair market value,” Morris said. “If a parcel gets appraised at $400,000, then sells for $2 million, then something's wrong.”
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