Deer in the headlights.
That image keeps coming back to me as I think about Monday night's town hall meeting at the Jackson County Ag Center.
The meeting was designed to be an information session about “why” the county’s property assessments went up dramatically this year.
But it was clear from the outset that county leaders hadn’t anticipated such a large crowd (1,000 people or more), or for the crowd's mood to be so surly.
Deer in the headlights seemed to be their body language.
If I were to characterize that meeting in just one word, it would be “disaster.”
Those organizing that event get an “A” for effort. They were, I believe, sincerely trying to give the public transparency about the county’s assessments and an overall picture of how the county’s tax system works.
While the motive behind the meeting was noble, the execution was, at best, a D-.
Even if county officials had been more attune to the crowd at the event, I’m not sure it would have made much difference. After covering these kinds of things for the past four decades, I would have never held that kind of mass meeting. Nothing good ever comes from getting a bunch of angry people in a room and trying to explain taxation. As one person told me Monday night, all it takes is one person to sound off and the rest will smell blood in the water. People always go away madder from these things than they were when they arrived.
Here’s the reality: Most people don’t know very much about how the property tax system works and there’s no way to explain it in a few minutes before a large crowd of people who are upset and at times, unruly.
Property taxation is extremely complex, kinda like the Federal income tax system. The difference, however, is that there aren’t a slew of accountants floating around to help people sort out their property assessments and taxes the way there are for income tax returns. Individuals are left to their own devices to figure out the details of property taxation, a situation that leaves a deep void of understanding.
So where did county leaders go wrong Monday night?
Give me a little latitude to armchair quarterback that game:
• Too many officials were trying to do the explaining. Like too many cooks in a kitchen, it was a confusing mess of mixed messages.
• Officials seemed to assume people in the room knew more about assessments and property taxes than most really do. The average citizen only has a passing knowledge about property taxation issues and they aren’t going to get up to speed in a one hour mass meeting. It's folly to think such meetings can "educate" the public about something as complex as property taxation.
• Officials attempted to cover too much information too quickly and without much context. The meeting should have focused 95% on the assessment process and not on millage rates or where the money is spent. No budgets have been approved and no millage rates have been set yet; assessments are the current issue, nothing else really matters at this point.
• The main reason so many people were there Monday night was because of the line on the assessment notice that estimated this year’s taxes. That info is state-mandated, but is terribly misleading since it uses last year’s millage rates against this year’s higher assessments. While a couple of officials mentioned that the number was “incorrect,” they really didn’t do a very good job of explaining why it's wrong. I’d bet that 75% of the people in the room believe that the estimated line on the assessment notice was their tax bill for the year. Nobody really took the time to clearly explain why that isn’t the case.
• County officials were overly defensive in throwing the school systems under the bus during the meeting by saying it was school taxes that caused the problem, not county taxes. But the issue wasn’t who sets the highest millage rates — the issue was why did assessments go up so dramatically? (While it’s true that the school systems do levy higher millage rates, there’s a lot of reasons for that which had nothing to do with the assessment issue.) Trying to deflect blame for high assessments onto the school systems was wrong-headed and a cheap-shot. The last thing county leaders need is a finger-pointing squabble with other public leaders, especially school officials.
• It was only mentioned in passing, but one big reason the assessments are higher this year is that the state has changed the way it calculates the “ratio” data in all counties. That reformulation is one reason the assessments are so much higher, but nobody attempted to break that down and explain in detail what that is all about.
• Another missed opportunity was to give an example of how inflation in home prices has pushed up property values in the county. Why didn’t someone show specific home sales data from a neighborhood of 2022 prices compared to 2020 sales price to demonstrate how that is skewing assessments upward? Seems to me that would be good way to show what’s happening at a granular level that everyone in the room could understand.
• Officials should have said — nay, shouted — that millage rates will undoubtedly go down later this year as an offset to the higher assessments. While no rates have been set — and won’t be set until later in the summer or early fall — it’s almost certain that millage rates will go down due to the huge jump in assessments. Officials danced around that issue Monday night when it was the very thing most people in the room really wanted to know. They could have been more clear about that.
• County officials didn’t make it clear to the audience that they don’t have the power to manipulate or lower assessments. The board of commissioners can’t legally do that, nor can school boards or city councils. The board of tax assessors, an independent body, is responsible for setting assessments. I’ll bet few people in the room Monday night really understood that; many obviously believe the board of commissioners has the power to order assessments lower, something they legally are prevented from doing.
While county officials could have done a more focused job Monday night, the antagonistic tone of the meeting wasn’t their fault.
Some citizens were rude, shouting and interrupting and making it difficult for others to hear what was being said. A couple of people made dumb comments; one person from the audience claimed that property taxation was illegal and encouraged the crowd to watch a flaky online video about that claim. But property taxation is legal in Georgia no matter what some online puffball says.
Others seemed to believe that industries in the county aren’t paying taxes. While a few do get special tax incentives, they all pay taxes, or money in lieu of taxes. (I’m opposed to such incentives, but very few industries are getting them now.) Business in the county do pay taxes and it’s wrong to suggest otherwise.
The biggest issue — and one that continues to come up at a lot of public meetings — is a push for a larger exemption for senior citizens, especially from paying school taxes. Various senior citizen groups have been pushing this idea for a long time.
I do expect school exemptions to go up in the next year or two, but they likely won’t go as high as some would like. Senior exemptions don’t do away with taxes, they just shift the tax burden to younger homeowners and commercial and industrial businesses.
Still, for the longtime homeowner who is elderly, the rapid rise in property values is a burden. A home built 50 years ago for less than $50,000 may today be worth $300,000 or more in value. That’d be great if you’re a homeowner looking to sell, but many older citizens don’t plan to sell and just want to live out their lives in their homes without being forced to sell due to taxes they can no longer afford. Some kind of consideration should be given to those citizens.
Monday night’s meeting really didn’t solve the issue of higher property assessments in the county. Nor did it do much to shed light on the issue or inform the public — heat isn't the same thing as light.
Even if the presentation had been done better, I’m not sure many people in the room really wanted to hear it. They wanted to vent frustration with a system they don’t fully understand, a system they believe is fleecing their wallets. It was a forum to complain, not learn.
Perhaps if the county had printed up a bunch of assessment appeal forms, handed those around and helped people fill them out, more would have been accomplished.
At the least, it might have kept officials from becoming deer in some very angry headlights.
If you think your property is over-valued, filling an appeal is really the best way to sort out the issue. Here’s where to download that form:
I will offer two more websites that might help regarding issues with property taxes:
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