ATLANTA — Fulton County is facing its first legal action over allegations that a former chief appraiser illegally overvalued thousands of properties across the county.
The allegations, first reported by Channel 2's Mike Petchenik, are that the county engaged in a practice called "sales chasing," which involves raising a property's assessment value to its sale price, but leaving the value of neighboring properties unchanged.
State law requires valuations to be uniform across neighborhoods.
R.J. Morris, a member of the Fulton County Board of Assessors, contends the office "sales-chased" more than 18,000 properties in 2016, bringing the county nearly $18 million in property taxes to which it wasn't entitled.
Sarah Margulies told Petchenik that, when she saw his previous story, a lightbulb went off.
“It was an aha moment. It was, like, 'This is what we’ve been saying,'” she said. “We repeatedly said you can’t just set the sales price as the fair market value for a home arbitrarily.”
Margulies said that, when she bought her home in the Howell Station area of West Midtown in 2015, the next year her assessment jumped 40 percent to match her purchase price.
“That felt like a really large jump,” she said. “Luckily, on either side of my house, there are homes from the same builder, built in the same year with the same square footage and same lot size, and it turns out they were valued at almost $100,000 less than my new valuation.”
But, Margulies said, when she appealed the value, Fulton County pushed back hard.
“I was repeatedly told, ‘That’s just how things are done here,’” she said. “You haven’t bought a home before. You wouldn’t know. We’re experts and we do this.”
Margulies hired an attorney and eventually settled with the county for a lower value, but she said the process took more than a year.
Her attorney, Mitchell Graham, who is also her neighbor, told Petchenik the same scenario played out for him after he bought his home in 2015.
“The following year, lo and behold, the purchase price was my assessment,” he said.
Graham said when it came time for the county to deliver him with its discovery in the lawsuit, county attorneys chose instead to abruptly settle.
Graham believes that’s because they realized something illegal had taken place.
“Somebody in the tax assessor’s staff did enter the sales price for each property,” he said. “It wasn’t something that just inadvertently happened.”
Graham said he contacted several homeowners on the list published by Channel 2 Action News and he's filing a lawsuit on their behalf to force the county to issue them refunds, but he's not stopping there.
Graham said he's exploring a class action suit on behalf of all affected property owners.
“The vast majority of the people who were impacted aren’t going to have the time, the inclination or they’re just not going to know about it,” Graham said.
Margulies isn’t eligible to participate in this latest suit because she settled, but she told Petchenik she hopes justice is served.
“I’m really glad that WSB and that you, Mike, were able to tell people about this so that people can have a fair value on their home and justice,” she said.
County spokeswoman Jessica Corbitt told Petchenik on Wednesday that the county’s new chief appraiser is still analyzing the data presented by Morris and it would be a few more weeks before he reaches a conclusion about whether there was any wrongdoing. She declined to comment on the pending litigation.
“I hate to say it, but I don’t believe they’ll do it on their own,” said Graham. “If they were smart, they would just try to cut me out of the picture and issue a refund.”
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