A taxing problem: Fannin County properties massively undervalued, review finds

A taxing problem: Fannin County properties massively undervalued, review finds

May 30th, 2014 by Tim Omarzu in Local Regional News

Dennis Nicholson talks in his business, Nicholson Tire Center, about the incorrect tax statement that he received from Fannin County, Ga.

Dennis Nicholson talks in his business, Nicholson Tire...

Photo by Angela Lewis Foster /Times Free Press.

Illustration by Laura McNutt /Times Free Press.

For $2.2 million, you can buy a 5,500-square-foot log home in the Chattahoochee National Forest near Blue Ridge, Ga., that has "views to die for," "massive stone fireplaces" and decorative bears carved right into its log beams.

One fact the real estate listing doesn't mention: No one's ever paid property taxes on the house, because the 2.2-acre parcel is recorded on Fannin County tax rolls as unimproved land worth $52,000.

Roughly $100,000 in property taxes has gone uncharged on the log mansion since its construction in 2008, and that's one reason all three members of the Board of Tax Assessors in Fannin County were removed from office Tuesday night by unanimous vote of the county commissioners. New assessors were sworn in Thursday.

"It's quite a mess," County Commissioner Earl Johnson said. "We had a hearing last week. A judge cleared the way to remove them."

The untaxed log home wasn't the worst of it, county officials say.

The county assessors' big mistake, the blunder that helped launch a state review, was the overvaluation last year of Nicholson Tire, a tire, brake and alignment shop in Mineral Bluff that had its fair market value set at $103 million - 1,000 times its actual worth of $103,000.

"I've kept these to just look at and laugh at," auto shop co-owner Dennis Nicholson said of the $796,949 property tax bill he got in September 2013 and a "corrected" one sent later for $795,384. Once the mistakes were fixed, Nicholson actually wound up paying about $1,200 in property taxes.

The real problem with the auto shop's overvaluation is that it threw off the county's tax digest, or tax base, that's calculated each year.

"That was a $100 million mistake," County Attorney Lynn Doss said. "That was just the straw that broke the camel's back."

The $103 million mistake was discovered after the county and schools had set their millage rates and residents' tax bills were issued - so the county and schools are out about $750,000, according to a performance review of the board of tax assessors issued in February by the Georgia Department of Revenue.

Doss said the $103 million increase in the $1.3 billion tax digest should have raised red flags with the assessors' office, with the outside vendor that prints the tax digest and with Fannin County Tax Commissioner Shirley Sosebee, whose office sends out tax bills.

"It should have been caught in three different places," Doss said.

Sosebee, who took office in January 2013, didn't return calls seeking comment.

State review finds problems

The state review also found that Fannin County's tax digest was "deficient" and had "unacceptably low overall assessments" from 2009 to 2012, which means the county owes the state $34,758 - and may owe more.

Sixty-three structures - including four owned by assessors' office employees - had their property values lowered in the 2013 tax digest due to "economic obsolescence" or loss of value due to outside forces, the review found. But it appeared the category was applied incorrectly by appraisal staff, the review said.

This log mansion in Fannin County was recorded on the county's tax rolls as being valued at $52,000. The property is for sale at a list price of $2.2 million.

This log mansion in Fannin County was recorded...

Photo by Angela Lewis Foster /Times Free Press.

Before 2011, assessors appointed by the County Commission also worked as staff appraisers. Former assessors told chief appraiser Lorie Galloway that sales prices of property were "too high," the review states, and instructed her not to do appraisals by considering the purchase price of comparable properties.

The review found that county appraisers were "courteous, professional and willing to learn." But it said that appraisal methods "were not adequately documented," that computer passwords for the appraisal system were not secure, and that the board of tax assessors' meetings were regularly held in closed session and meeting minutes lacked detail.

The county may need to hire temporary appraisers or outside help to correct the tax digest deficiencies, the review says.

County commissioners on Tuesday removed board of tax assessors members David Lewis, Jerry Whitehead and Mary Jo Towe "for cause."

Their contact information wasn't available from the assessors' office. But Lewis defended the three-member board of tax assessors in a statement he read at a May 5 meeting. He said the board of assessors moved quickly to come up with an action plan to correct problems identified in the state review.

"It is the desire of this board to remain active and allowed to make improvements," he said.

Superior Court Judge Roger Bradley on Thursday swore in Lane Bishop, a land surveyor, Sonia Smith, a title professional, and Nathan Henson, an appraiser, to fill the unexpired terms of the assessors who were removed from office.

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfreepress.com, twitter.com/TimOmarzu or 423-757-6651.