Beyond today’s strife between the commissioners and the assessor board, there must be some consideration for the bigger picture — the structural problems between the two boards.
Consider that the BOC, which sets county government tax rates, is elected. The tax commissioner, who is in charge of collecting those taxes, is elected. But the board in charge of overseeing the establishment of county property values — perhaps the most important and certainly the most subjective part of the taxing process — is appointed by the BOC. Therefore, the only control county citizens have over those who ultimately oversee property values comes indirectly through the BOC.
Some complain that the BOC is butting its nose in where it shouldn’t with the assessors. But in controlling who serves on the BOA, the commissioners are the ultimate check on the assessors. And conflict between these two groups is inevitable whenever there are significant assessment problems, such as perennially late digests, which undermine the revenue process for the county, the cities and the school system.
Consider too, that under our current arrangement, certain incentive problems can arise. An assessor board that serves at the pleasure of the BOC could — at least in theory — face some political pressure to inflate values. A board, such as the BOC, that sets tax rates will always prefer to see revenues increased without raising millage rates. And during the housing boom, that’s exactly what we had. Digests skyrocketed statewide, while tax rates remained relatively steady. Citizens saw their taxes go way up, while tax-levying boards across Georgia could say, “Hey, it ain’t us, we’re keeping the rates the same.”
This year, the state legislature addressed that problem, agreeing to freeze values for at least the next two years. But with values falling anyway, that’s just a token move now, hardly the brave step it would have been five years ago when the measure would have had real teeth.
I think any evaluation of today’s problems must come under the umbrella of this bigger structural issue, the fact that the BOC shouldn’t really be involved in the assessment process, but is nevertheless, inextricably linked because it is charged with appointing people to oversee assessments.
All that said, here are a few thoughts on today’s ordeal: New BOC chairman Anthony Dove has angered some of those who don’t want the BOC in the assessors’ business. But the new chief appraiser started on Monday, April 13, and there’s no telling when that post would have been filled without his intervention. Will the hire prove a good move? Well, only time will tell. But the resignation of the lone appraiser III in the office, coupled with a lengthy stalemate on the chief appraiser’s search, necessitated decisive action by somebody. The chief appraiser’s search resembled a rudderless ship in a stormy sea a few weeks ago, but that ship has now reached its port.
While united now in fighting their dismissals, the board of assessor members have certainly not been a harmonious bunch. Their acrimony is cited as one of the reasons for their removal.
But it’s necessary to point out that the BOC table hasn’t exactly been a place for group hugs in recent years either. And the commissioners faced the public buzzsaw last year, when a “kick-em’ all out” mentality from people fed up with all the fighting nearly wiped several members off the board. Commissioners would certainly argue that citizens needed to pay attention to who was right and who was wrong during those contentious moments at the BOC table in recent years.
Ironically, the BOC, in wiping out everyone from the BOA table — while not addressing who was right and wrong among the assessors, who were deeply divided — is taking the same “kick ‘em all out” approach that nearly did them in during the elections. A harder look at each BOA member for their individual performances would be fairer, but far more complicated and less expedient.
County commissioners worked much harder than most folks realize to cut expenses while setting the 2009 budget, but they were also short-sighted last summer when they agreed to cut the salary for the chief appraiser’s position. Later, when the search for a chief appraiser bogged down, the BOC recognized that they needed to consider boosting that salary. So, the assessor members seem justified in saying that they got some mixed messages on the importance of the chief appraiser’s post from the BOC.
That said, the assessor board could have presented two or three options from the list of applicants they had for chief appraiser, while also acknowledging that the salary the BOC initially set wouldn’t provide the caliber of applicant the assessors really wanted.
Whether intended or not, the assessors gave off the impression that they were comfortable with dragging the chief appraiser search well into 2009. It was ultimately this perception that led to the action against them.
How this all plays out remains to be seen. But you can surely expect the BOC to get involved in BOA affairs as long as there are holdups in the county’s revenue process. Likewise, you can surely expect the BOA to repeatedly point out problems with BOC involvement in the tax appraisal process. These tensions are the nature of the arrangement.
Perhaps a three-member elected BOA would be a step in the right direction. Yes, it would carry its own problems. For instance, how much would you have to pay to get people to run for such a post? Also, an elected BOA risks losing votes any time it denies a property owner’s appeal, thus making it vulnerable to political pressures from disgruntled citizens. Then again, isn’t that true of any elected official who makes tough decisions?
In my eyes, a direct electoral link between citizens and those who oversee their property values would make sense. I believe this would be a bigger picture solution to the years of BOC-BOA turmoil.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal.
Four digests from the Assessors office in three years showed progress towards timely function of the Assessors office. This was not noted in the BOC argument for dismissal of the BOA. The problems noted for the current digest were not deemed sufficiently damaging such as to start from scratch. The chief appraiser could have been in place by promotion from within, a policy supported by Madison County Government. That said, there were the structural discords mentioned in the article. This discontent is similar to that rampant in our Federal Government, put in place for much the same reasons. It is wise to have some discord to force disparate groups to make changes while keeping one group from dictating them.
One must remember that the independence of the BOC and BOA required by GA law. I am not aware whether it is permissible to elect Board of Assessor members, however, it would be wise to realize that elected officials are swayed more by votes than by principles, particularly principles of fairness, as assessments are served to the voting public at large hopefully without regard to gaining votes for re-election!