Man who investigated assessor's office found workers incompetent, untrained

ATLANTA — A county tax appraiser on the team that studied Fulton County’s tax assessor’s office said Wednesday he believes the department is on the right track after past missteps.

Stephen White, the chief appraiser in Cobb County, was appointed by the Georgia Department of Revenue to investigate the department at the request of the Fulton County Board of Commissioners, in light of issues with the tax digest.

"They have some inefficiencies and some processes that just need to be refined and tuned because they're a big operation -- a lot of employees, a lot of parcels," White told Channel 2's Mike Petchenik. "I just think they've got some things they can improve upon."

The yearlong review found incompetence, lack of training and a possible conflict of interest in the department.

Petchenik asked White what he deemed to be incompetence.

“I think it was just maybe lack of common sense of employees that were handling certain scenarios,” he said.


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White said the team discovered some appraisers weren’t physically inspecting properties.

“Some of the appraisers do need to get out into the field,” he said. “They need to have a schedule where they’re getting out in the field, taking a look at properties and seeing what’s changed, where they may have errors in their record."

White responded to criticism that his review didn’t address concerns about so-called sales chasing in 2016. Those allegations were raised by R.J. Morris, a member of the Fulton County Board of Assessors.

Morris said he told the reviewers about allegations that the former chief appraiser raised assessed values on 18,441 properties to their 2015 sales prices in 2016, while leaving neighboring home values unchanged.

“We did have the understanding that only properties that had sold in 2016 were changed,” White told Petchenik, adding that the scope of his work was to assess the current state of the office in 2017.

“We were aware that Fulton County was chasing a lot of values this time last year and so that practice didn’t seem to be going on when we went through our review finding,” he said.

White said it’s commonly understood in his industry that sales chasing is not a fair practice.
“I think it’s inappropriate and it’s not what you do to get a fair and equitable value,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anything in the code section that says you can’t do this. I think that’s a given.”

Fulton County’s new chief appraiser is analyzing the numbers to see if affected homeowners were overcharged and are due a refund.

The reviewers also raised questions about an assessor’s office employee who also owned a tax representation firm in which personal property returns were filed. The reviewers suggested the department have a policy for potential conflicts of interest.

On Wednesday, Chief Appraiser Dwight Robinson told The Atlanta-Journal Constitution that the county is aware of that employee’s business and said the employee doesn’t have clients in Fulton County and isn’t representing homeowners who are appealing property tax bills.

“I’m really pleased with it,” Robb Pitts, chairman of the Fulton County Board of Commissioners, told Petchenik of the review on Tuesday. “To me, it’s a blueprint to take corrective action into problems that were going on in that department."

Fulton County sent Petchenik the following statement about the changes it has already made:

“Over the last year, a large, multidisciplinary team within Fulton County Government has worked side-by-side with the Tax Assessors’ Office to strengthen their operations. In 2018, Fulton County invested $3.5 million in technology, conducted an in-depth process review, developed a communications plan and more to enhance the property assessment function for the benefit of property owners. Thanks to these investments, many of the recommendations in the PRB report are already underway. Others will be incorporated into our ongoing process improvement efforts. At the end of the day, our commitment is to ensure that our property assessment process is efficient, effective and equitable.”

Reviewers concluded that the hiring of Robinson last year went smoothly and that he has the technical know-how to move the department forward.

“We heard nothing but positive remarks from employees about Mr. Robinson,” he said. “A lot of faith in Dwight’s abilities and things.”

White said he believes the county will take the report to heart and make the appropriate changes.

“There were always be errors. That’s what happens when humans are working,” he said. “We’re all imperfect, but I think Dwight is interested in what his operation can do to improve.”