Yearlong review of Fulton Co. tax assessor's office found 'incompetence'

FULTON COUNTY, Ga. — A yearlong review of the Fulton County tax assessor’s office found “incompetence, lack of training, and a possible conflict of interest."

The report, compiled on behalf of the State Department of Revenue by outside assessors, was requested last year by the Fulton County Board of Commissioners in light of issues with the 2017 tax digest that resulted in the county reverting back to the previous year’s figures.

The state ultimately rejected the county’s digest for a number of technical errors, which sent budgets across the county and in two school districts into a tailspin until the county could petition a judge to allow tax collections.

"I'm really pleased with it," Fulton County Commissioner Chairman Robb Pitts told Channel 2's Mike Petchenik. "To me, it's a blueprint to take corrective action into problems that were going on in that department."

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The review panel, which included assessors from neighboring counties, noted initially that there was not a lot of cooperation from tax assessor employees.

“Mr. Pruitt initiated conversations with Fulton staff and reviewed processes and procedures, while at the same time attempting to convince employees that he was not there to fire anyone,” the report said. “Mr. Pruitt seemed confident that no illegal activity occurred; rather, failures were due to incompetence.”

The report determined assessor’s employees lacked enough training on software they use to do their jobs, and were instead “learning as they work.”

“During this review the Board found that the FCBTA lacked the basic organization plan needed for an  office of its size and complexity,” the report said. “FCBTA must deal with a county the size of some small states.”

Reviewers also found one potential conflict of interest in the department.

There is one "senior appraiser who appears to own and operate a private tax representation firm in which business personal property returns are filed on behalf of property owners. The company website provides the Fulton County appraiser’s credentials. Fulton County should consider adopting and enforcing a policy requiring employees to seek approval for outside employment or business activity.  The policy should provide that any type of outside employment or business activity must be approved by the Chief Appraiser and Human Resource Director or County Manager who would have discretion to deny such requests when real or perceived conflicts of interest exist or where confidentiality of taxpayer records  may be  compromised,” the report said.

Reviewers also suggested the county hire a deputy chief assessor to provide some outside expertise to the process.

“The things they pointed out are obviously of some concern, but they’re also fixable,” Pitts said. “We’ve already taken some corrective action and going forward we’re going to address specifics they had in there.”

Reviewers did conclude that the hiring of now Chief Assessor Dwight Robinson has gone smoothly and that he has the technical know-how to move the department forward.

Assessor’s board member R.J. Morris, a frequent critic of Robinson, said last week that he applauds the job Robinson has done in the 2018 digest to bring values in line with the market.

But, Morris said Tuesday that he’s less than thrilled about the review and he’s sent a letter to Revenue Commissioner Lynne Riley expressing his frustration.

“It says nothing,” he told Petchenik. “To say I’m disappointed is an understatement.”

Morris said he told the reviewers about allegations the former chief assessor was illegally “sales chasing” properties in 2016 by raising their assessed values to their 2015 sales prices, while leaving neighboring home values unchanged.

Fulton County’s new chief assessor is analyzing the numbers to see if 18,441 homeowners were overcharged and due a refund, but the review makes no mention of it.

“I think they are trying to cover this up so it tries to not make things look as bad as they are,” he said.

A representative from Fulton County sent Petchenik a statement, saying:

"On Monday, May 7, Fulton County received a report produced by a Performance Review Board convened by the Department of Revenue. This review was conducted upon the request of the Board of Commissioners in February 2017. The report provided a series of recommendations which are consistent with the County’s commitment to strengthening the property assessment process.  
 
"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."