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Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke gives a preview of his State of the City address at the Chattanooga Rotary Club on Thursday, Apr. 7, 2016, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

2021 appraisal cost projections

Chattanooga — $832,773

Collegedale — $32,163

East Ridge — $93,272

Lakesite — $9,582

Lookout Mountain — $10,813

Red Bank — $56,052

Ridgeside — $2,140

Signal Mountain — $38,917

Soddy-Daisy — $67,786

Walden — $11,412

With a little more paperwork, Chattanooga will be off the hook for a proposed $557,000 appraisal bill for 2017.

That might not be the case in 2021, when the city is projected to owe $832,773 for its share of costs associated with Hamilton County's next four-year appraisal cycle, according to county assessor estimates. The assessor appraises all properties in the county, including in Chattanooga and other municipalities, for tax purposes.

The Hamilton County Commission recently waived $772,764 in reappraisal billing owed by the county's 10 cities, combined, for 2017. A 1989 state law requires a county's municipalities to pay half their property reappraisal costs. It also lets counties waive the fees if they have agreements with their cities.

Until now, Hamilton County never enforced the law by either charging the appraisal fees or formally waiving them.

On Tuesday, the Chattanooga City Council voted 9-0 to authorize Mayor Andy Berke to enter into an agreement with the county to officially cancel the 2017 bill.

Berke's administration says it is hopeful it can manage to provide essential needs without a tax increase if no waiver emerges in 2021.

"Of course, some predictability is always preferred, especially in terms of future planning, but we are glad to see an agreement has been reached for 2017 appraisals," city finance officer Daisy Madison said in an email. "I don't want to speculate, but I can say that, like any business or family, the City of Chattanooga strives to live within our means. If our revenue goes down, we make the necessary adjustments that allow us to continue to provide important services to Chattanoogans."

While $557,000 or $832,773 appraisal bills can't really be described as pocket change, they amount to less than 1 percent of Chattanooga's fiscal 2017 $230 million operating budget. If you kick in the city's $80 million capital budget, they are an even smaller slice of the pie.

The unexpected appraisal billing drew immediate and sustained fire shortly after Hamilton County Property Assessor Marty Haynes broke the news to all the city mayors late last year. Haynes, who took office in September, has consistently maintained he is only following the law and only learned the county had long been out of compliance during a training conference.

In December, Berke met with the mayors of Hamilton County's smaller cities to discuss the issue, but has not publicly pushed against the measure except to say that Chattanooga would be glad to formalize the long-standing practice of waiving the city's appraisal costs.

Berke's relative silence stands in stark contrast to the loud protests voiced by officials of East Ridge, Lookout Mountain and every other city in Hamilton County that would have had to pay the 2017 bill by June 30.

Lookout Mountain Mayor Carol Mutter made no bones about it when she petitioned county commissioners to waive the fee: the appraisal would mean a property tax increase.

"It certainly was not in our budget," Mutter said. "The only recourse we would have — particularly in Lookout, which is a small town that does not have substantial sales tax revenue — our only recourse would be to raise property taxes."

Commissioner Tim Boyd said the 2017 waiver should serve as "breathing space" while the commission considers how to handle the 2021 reappraisal cycle.

Several commissioners said they ultimately want a long-term solution instead of revisiting whether to waive appraisal fees again in four years.

Commissioner Joe Graham has suggested making a deal with Chatttanooga, waiving the city's appraisal fees if the city waives stormwater fees it charges Hamilton County school properties. Such an agreement would essentially be "a wash," he said.

Graham's comments come at a time when commissioners and school board members continue to grapple with more than $200 million in deferred school system maintenance needs.

Contact staff writer Paul Leach at 423-757-6481 or pleach@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @pleach_tfp.

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