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Taxes, tempers on the rise
Some say assessors unfairly targeting South Bryan
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Bryan County Commissioners will hold public hearings on the proposed millage rate increase today. The first hearing is at 10 a.m. in Pembroke at the Courthouse. The second is at 6 p.m. at the Courthouse Annex in Richmond Hill.

By all indications, property taxes will likely rise in Bryan County this year.

Bryan County has announced a tentative millage rate of 8.5, a one mill increase from the current 7.5 mills. County commissioners decided to consider a higher mill rate to balance the county’s draft budget of $17.5 million.

The Bryan County Board of Education is proposing moving its millage rate to 15.537 mills, an increase of two mills over last year, and will hold public hearings soon. The school system’s proposed general fund for the 2010 fiscal year is 49.5 million.

The cities of Pembroke and Richmond Hill have not yet announced what their millage rates for the coming year will be, although county taxes in Pembroke may increase by 24.98 percent and by 15.38 percent for Richmond Hill residents if the county commission approves its proposed 8.5 millage rate.

In addition, Bryan County Tax Assessor Dan Rollf informed the Bryan County Board of Commissioners at a regular meeting held Sept. 1 that all Georgians will see a rise in their taxes by about $170. This is due to the Georgia Legislature ending its Homestead Tax Relief Grant which had funded an increased homestead exemption for homeowners for the past several years.

The county tax assessor also told the commission "taxes are due within 60 days of mailing or Dec 20, whichever is later."

He said the county’s tax digest could be turned in on Oct. 5 and bills would be sent out within two weeks of the digest being submitted.

Rollf also confirmed that property values are frozen for three years thanks to Georgia HB233, except for properties that have been physically changed, as with additions or deletions. If properties have physically changed or changes were not formerly declared, their values can increase or decrease, he said.

However, a county-wide reassessment has not been conducted this year. The tax assessor’s office sent out close to 1,300 notices of changed value. There are some 12,000 pieces of property in Bryan County.

"The last reevaluation we had was in 2006," Rollf said.

Changes to property

The tax assessor said his three full-time and one part-time field appraisers have made changes in values that needed to be made because improvements to some properties were not "labeled" properly.

"Our office picks up changes though building permits provided to us by the county and the cities and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; and through various forms of discovery," Rollf explained. "One of the forms of discovery is a physical review of property."

Rollf said property owners are required to report changes to their property, but not all of them do. He said his office normally "gets word of changes" when a building permit is received from the county’s planning and building department.

Some changes may not require building permits, according to Rollf. Property improvements, such as docks, usually require a permit from the Corps of Engineers, he said.

"A lot of people have docks that we don’t know about," Rollf said. "This review we did was important and took a lot of time."

Some residents have commented that many of the properties whose values have increased seem to be located in south Bryan County, most of those on the waterfront.

Richmond Hill resident Gib Robinson said his property – which has a dock – had its value raised from $590,100 to $639,300. He said he was told by employees at the tax assessor’s office that he could file an appeal.

"I asked when they were going to do (reassess) north Bryan County," Robinson said.

According to Robinson, the employee he spoke with at the tax assessor’s office did not know when or if appraisers would reassess property changes in north Bryan County.

Robinson added that, in his opinion, the state’s moratorium on property values does not prevent the assessor’s office from lowering some property values if changes to the property have brought the value down.

"They’re inconsistent all over the place," he said.

Rollf said reviews of property values have been conducted in north Bryan County. He also explained that such a review can be "spread out" over a period of time.

"The state requires a physical review of property every three years," Rollf said this week. "The state also recognizes that reviews are labor intensive and costly for counties to perform. Many counties do not have enough on board staff to perform physical reviews and must contract outside firms to conduct the reviews. They usually do this in conjunction with a county-wide revaluation. This can cost many hundreds of thousands of dollars. I believe the last time Bryan County contracted a review/revaluation was in 1995 and cost around $400,000."

Rollf added the state does not require all properties to be reviewed for physical changes in the same year.

"A review then, in a county such as ours, is an on-going process," he said. "We reviewed the areas in both ends of the county that were most likely to experience some sort of physical change over the last couple of years and we will continue to review properties as we can."

Robinson suggested the tax assessor’s office take the county’s rising number of foreclosures into account when determining property values and defining the current housing market.

Rollf agreed the issue of foreclosures is misunderstood.


"We are now required to consider re-sales of foreclosed property in the same manner that we consider any other sale," he said. "In the past, when distressed property was sold by a lending institution to a private party the sale was automatically disqualified for use in establishing general market values when performing revaluations or neighborhood adjustments. These sales were also normally disqualified by the Department of Audits in the annual sales ratio studies they perform on all counties.

"Simply put, counties are required to be within plus or minus 10 percent of the market. Basically, they add up all the fair market sales in a county and add up the county appraised values of those same properties, our sales must be within 10 percent. The state will not direct that a county perform a revaluation if not within standards but they will impose various financial penalties until you do. As with any other sale, if a foreclosure sale is so far out of kilter with other sales within a that local neighborhood it will not be used, either by the county in establishing general market values or the by the Georgia Department of Audits in their annual sales studies."

Rollf continued to explain that foreclosure sales are not used to set values on individual properties.

"We cannot use a foreclosure sale to set the value on an individual property any more than we can use a fair market sale to set the value on an individual property; in fact the Department of Audits specifically looks for this," he said. "For example, if a lending institution sells a distressed property for 100,000 less than the value we have on it we cannot change the value on that specific property any more than we could change the value of an individual property that sold for 100,000 more than what we have on it. Both sales will now be considered together with all other sales when establishing new market values for a neighborhood. Both sales would stand an equal chance of being discounted if grossly out of line with most other sales in the same neighborhood."

A 2010 revaluation?

Rollf said his office will update the fair market value of Bryan County property next year. The Board of Assessors may complete a revaluation for 2010, he said.

"Any decrease in fair market value due to any reason, be it physical changes or market adjustments, will result in a decrease in moratorium (frozen) value," Rollf said this week. "Any increases in fair market value due to market adjustments or to appraiser opinions of value will not result in a corresponding increase in moratorium value. It is important to note that average sales in Bryan County are still running well above our appraised values."

The tax assessor said the declining housing market in Bryan County has more to do with "what people can sell their property for than (with) the current taxable value of their property."

"In all counties, allowing only decreases to moratorium (values) due to market changes will result in a lower tax base," Rollf said. "(This) in turn will most likely result in an increase in millage rates. To put it in perspective, if the assessors were allowed to lower the value of all properties in the county by 50 percent then the millage rate would likely double, and ultimately the property tax would not change."

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