Editor’s note: This is the second in a multi-part series about growth in Bryan County.
By Jeff Whitten
Most people see growth in Bryan County in the obvious ways.
More traffic. New homes sprouting up across South Bryan, and, to a lesser extent, on the north end of the county.
Liz Lynn, on the other hand, sees the growth in the way it impacts the county’s budget.
Lynn, chief appraiser in the Bryan County Tax Assessor’s Office, is in charge of the office responsible for assessing property values “in a fair and uniform matter,” according to the Bryan County website.
Lynn works with an independent board of assessors appointed by the county.
Their job is to assess the value of each piece of property in the county, based on its fair market value.
That creates the tax digest, which is used by local governments – elected representatives in the county, cities and school system – to set a millage rate. The tax commissioner’s job is to collect taxes.
The work Lynn’s office does in assessing properties is a part of creating the county’s tax digest, which is reported as 40 percent of the value of all of a county’s residential, commercial, agricultural and industrial property.
The preliminary tax digest for 2018 is nearly $1.58 billion, and that’s only 40 percent of the value. It also includes both tangible and intangible property, the latter being property used by businesses that are required each year to file returns.
The digest is simply one yardstick to measure how a county is growing, and Lynn said it can be misleading.
For example, when Bryan County’s tax digest grew by 8.5 percent from 2016 to 2017, the increase was in part due to the addition of a $21 million property that had previously been exempt – Oneida’s east coast distribution center.
Those shots in the arm don’t happen every year. For Lynn, annual increases in the digest of 5.2 percent and 4.8 percent is more in line with what’s happening in counties such as Bulloch, which Lynn believes is similar to Bryan due to Georgia Southern University’s booming enrollment.
But even 5 percent growth can make it difficult to fund services.
“Bryan County has one of the lowest millage rates in the state,” Lynn noted. “And counties and the cities do have the difficult task of providing services. As your area is growing, that can become a challenge.”
So how is the tax digest helpful in tracking growth?
For starters, it is the most comprehensive look at property in the county, and Lynn said there are two types of growth reflected in a digest. One is real growth, the other is inflationary.
“Real growth is new construction, period,” Lynn said. “Inflationary growth comes with changes in the market that we are required by the state to keep up with.”
That’s called fair market value, or, “the amount a knowledgeable buyer would pay for the property and a willing seller would take for the property at an arm’s length, bona fide sale,” according to the state Department of Revenue.
Fair market value is arrived at by analyzing all home sales in the county then “kicking out those where there is family involved or someone has to move quickly,” Lynn said.
Lynn uses the example of when a family moves in, buys a home and then finds out they’re going somewhere else and forced to sell in a hurry.
“They’ll come in, pay a certain amount for a home, then find out they have to move and they’ll sell for $30,000 less just to get out from under it,” Lynn said.
That’s only one example of a sale that doesn’t reflect the market, she said. Those that don’t mirror similar sales in the market are rejected. Once appraisers have the county’s true fair market value sales, they’ll look at whether their assessments were on target or need to be adjusted.
“If we’re high, we’re going to adjust and if we’re low, we’re going to adjust,” Lynn said. “Our report card will come from the Department of Audits, which is separate from the Department of Revenue. They come in and pull all of your sales and do their own appraisals.”
To pass, the county assessments making up the digest have to meet the Department of Revenue’s assessment within two percentage points either way – a four percent window that Lynn called “the ratio.”
Bryan County has met that target ratio the past 20 years, said Lynn, who became chief appraiser in 2013.
Yet with nearly 19,000 parcels on the books in Bryan County, it’s a lot to keep track of.
“There’s a lot of training involved,” Lynn said.
Members of the Board of Assessors have to undergo annual training as do Lynn and her staff, which includes those who specialize in various types of property.
Every three years, tax appraisers are required to physically review every piece of property in the county.
“It’s not to bump up your property values, it’s to get current photos to make sure your information is correct,” Lynn said, and urged property owners to investigate what exemptions are available to them and also make sure the information her office has is correct.
“We work for property owners,” Lynn said. “What we do is not secret.”
Coming up: More on the digest, and how growth is impacting emergency services.