Thursday, October 8, 2015

Government agencies may "wait to see what happens" with EMV technology before upgrading systems

As credit card acceptance begins changing from magnetic stripe reading to chip-and-PIN transactions at retailers nationwide, a prominent e-government payment provider is advising government offices to wait before rolling out new systems. NIC Services says that government entities generally experience less fraudulent payments than the private sector, and that government merchants can sit on the sidelines unless particular agencies have experienced high rates of fraud or chargebacks. From Government Technology magazine on October 2: 
...As for whether government should rush to make the switch, Mukesh Patel, president of NIC Services, told Government Technology in July that his company is recommending that its public-sector partners analyze their history of chargebacks and fraudulent transactions, and then make a business decision as to whether it’s beneficial to invest heavily in the terminals.
“Just from our experience, with the 28 to 30 states we work with, government services in general don’t tend to have a high fraudulence rate," he said, "because as a citizen you wouldn’t go to your DMV and renew your own driver’s license with a stolen card. It would be very easy to find out who you are.” 
NIC’s recommendation is that unless an office encounters a high incidence of payment card fraud, they should wait to see what happens in the industry...

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

City endorses school exemption plan

During their meeting Monday night, the City Commission unanimously approved a resolution supporting the school board’s intentions to exempt homeowners age 65 and older from school taxes. The school system is seeking support from state senators and representatives in the area to carry the proposal forward in the Georgia General Assembly during its 2016 session. Final approval would require a majority vote in a public referendum.

Currently, homeowners become exempt from school taxes in Decatur when they turn 80 if they make less than $40,000 a year. School taxes represent about 60 percent of an average tax bill. I estimate that about 1,000 property owners would qualify for an age-65 school exemption.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Local governments weigh chip-and-PIN options

The new computer chips in consumers’ credit cards don’t just affect how retailers accept payments, but how government agencies accept credit card payments for fees, taxes, and merchandise. As of this month, if a consumer presents a card with a chip to a merchant (either private or public sector) and the merchant is only capable of reading the magnetic strip rather than the chip, then the merchant accepts the liability if fraud results from that transaction. An industry expert has written a piece in American City & County’s blog about how this shift in liability affects local governments: 
…City and county governments have several options for how they respond to the October deadline.
Deadline is not a mandate
Although the deadline shifts responsibility for fraudulent credit card charges from the card issuer to merchants that haven’t begun accepting chip cards, state and municipal governments are not required to have EMV-capable point-of-purchase terminals installed by Oct. 1. Credit card companies’ switch to microchipped cards will be only about 70 percent complete by year-end, according to, and the new cards will include magnetic strips as well as chips, so agencies’ existing point-of-sale terminals will remain viable for the foreseeable future. There is still plenty of time for city and county governments to research the issue and determine what timing is best for them to convert to new EMV card devices. 
Cost could be an issue 
In part, that decision involves evaluating how quickly budgets allow for an equipment upgrade. Basic EMV-capable pay terminals start at around $200 each and go up from there, so purchasing and installing new equipment can represent a substantial capital expense. Further, EMV conversion is more complex than simply unplugging a current card reader and replacing it with a new one. The transition requires new back-end code and a certification process that can take several months…

Monday, September 28, 2015

DeKalb County reminds taxpayers of deadline

The following item appeared in the Sept. 23 edition of the DeKalb Neighbor:
Property tax payments Claudia G. Lawson, DeKalb Tax Commissioner, is reminding DeKalb County taxpayers that the due date for the first installment of 2015 real estate and personal property taxes is Sept. 30.
First installment taxes, which are not received or postmarked by the Sept. 30 deadline will incur a 5 percent late payment penalty which applies by law. It is important to note that if your payment is mailed, the postmark or cancellation stamp from the U.S. Postal Service is the only accepted evidence of timely mailing. 
There is also a drop box on the front and side of the central office at 4380 Memorial Drive in Decatur [sic], which may be used for last minute drop-offs.
Another convenient option is to pay property taxes by electronic check or credit card.
Property owners with questions should contact the Tax Commissioner’s Office at 404-298-4000 or email for assistance.

DeKalb County property taxes are billed and paid separately from City of Decatur property taxes.  DeKalb sends one bill annually with two remittance stubs, the first being due this Wednesday.  Decatur sends two distinct bills annually; the first installment was due on June 1.

Monday, September 21, 2015

City manager proposes fee waiver for senior homeowners

The City Commission will consider a proposal tonight from city manager Peggy Merriss to offer a credit on bills for eligible seniors. Under the proposal, homeowners in Decatur over the age of 70 who have the S-3 homestead exemption may be eligible for a waiver of municipal fees for garbage pick-up and storm water utility services for 2015.

The typical owner of a single-family dwelling in Decatur was charged $240 for sanitation services and $75 for storm water drainage during our 1st installment billing of 2015. Some property owners, such as condo and town home owners, may have been charged less for fees based on the characteristics of their property. The proposal would waive the fees that the property owner was charged, resulting in (assuming that the charges have been paid) a credit on the taxpayer’s 2nd installment bill.

The measure is designed to help seniors cope with the cost of rising property assessments. More information about the context and reasons for this proposal are spelled out in Ms. Merriss’s memo to the City Commission here.  The meeting will take place at 7:30 tonight at City Hall.

Update:  The fee waiver was approved unanimously be the City Commission on Monday night.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

State senator pitches a cap on property assessments

In 2014, Sen. Fran Millar sponsored Senate Bill 293 to change procedures for appealing property values. That bill did not pass the state house. In 2015, Millar revisited the issue House Bill 202, which incorporated some proposals from the bill the prior year. HB 202 passed both chambers of the General Assembly and signed by the governor. 

For 2016, Millar says he’ll make another proposal for more reforms to assessments and appeals. He intends to prohibit boards of equalization from increasing property assessments based on information found by assessors while the property is under appeal.

Millar also says that, “we need to look at a cap on how much an assessment can increase in a given year.” Similar comments have been made by former state representative Ed Lindsey and Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Kyle Wingfield. They floated caps on assessment increases anywhere from 2 to 3 percent a year, while Millar has not specified a percentage.

Here’s what Millar wrote in an op-ed for the AJC a few weeks ago:
First, a Board of Tax Assessors cannot change a person’s tax assessment once it is published. One county is telling its Board of Equalization — the panel you face at an appeal hearing — that it has the power to raise a taxpayer’s assessment if evidence is presented that justifies such an increase. This needs to be prohibited by statute.
Second, one county is threatening to send letters to taxpayers that if they pursue an appeal, the Board of Equalization may increase the assessment without limitation. The taxpayer would be given a notice to sign and return if they wish to withdraw their appeal. This attempt to kill appeals also needs to be prohibited by statute. 
Third, we need to look at a cap on how much an assessment can increase in a given year. I am not sure what the correct percentage should be, but discussion needs to take place on this topic. Your thoughts are welcome.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Columbus mayor pushes to end property value freeze

The mayor of Georgia's second biggest city is urging residents to support an elimination of a property value freeze instituted in Columbus 35 years ago.  Taxpayers with the freeze keep the same property value for tax purposes unless they make improvements or sell the property.  Teresa Tomlinson argues that the system is unfair and discourages homeowners from making improvements and new families from moving in.  WRBL reports:
Columbus Mayor hopes City Council backs ‘thaw’ of property tax freeze 
COLUMBUS, Ga. – Mayor Teresa Tomlinson has wrapped up her “Thaw the Freeze” public forums. Tomlinson is hoping to add a referendum to the November 2016 General Election ballot.
Her proposal is to “thaw” the city’s property tax freeze that has been on the books since 1982. In basic terms, the freeze means when you buy a house in Columbus, your home value is frozen from that day on. 
Mayor Tomlinson said it’s had a depressing effect on the city’s economy. “With those types of findings, we need to take a very serious look at what sort of community we want to be in the future,” Tomlinson said. “Do we want to have a tax system in our community which deters people from moving in, penalizes people from moving up or down-sizing?”
This was the catalyst in her decision to host the public forums — to see how they community feels about what she calls an “outdated” tax system. 
Those that are most opposed to it are those who created the original tax freeze,” the mayor said. “And I think some of that is obviously because they felt like they did something tremendous at the time. And I think it was tremendous…at the time.” 
As the housing needs of society have changed, so should the tax system, the Mayor would argue... 
But changing a system that’s over 30 years old, won’t be easy, as the City Council has done battle with this issue before. 
“A lot of the council has been through the wars of the past and I’m sure they’re very apprehensive about teeing this up again because it’s been so divisive in the past,” Tomlinson said. “And I hope they will allow the citizens the opportunity to direct our future.” 
Meanwhile, opponents said this jeopardizes their security and they fear a ripple effect on other taxes may come from this change. 
As for next steps, the City Council would have to request that the referendum be put on the November ballot. The Georgia State Legislature would also have to approve it...

DeKalb County also offers a property tax freeze, but the freeze here seems to enjoy much broader and bipartisan support than the freeze in Columbus-Muscogee.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Court clerk explains new appeals process

Rockdale County clerk of courts Ruth Wilson recently wrote a piece in the Newton Citizen describing the practical implications of House Bill 202 on property appeals.  The way she explains it is a bit clearer than the law itself!  Take a look:
Georgia legislators this year amended laws governing procedures for appealing county tax assessments on real and personal property. The changes took effect July 1.
In 2011, the clerk of Superior Court was mandated by law to provide oversight, administration and administrative assistance to the county Board of Equalization (BOE). This year, those provisions were amended, designating the clerk of Superior Court as the “appeal administrator” for the BOE and requiring the clerk to provide administrative and clerical services necessary for taxpayers to appeal decisions of the Board of Tax Assessors (BOA) affecting taxation of real and personal property...
Upon receiving the taxpayer’s notice of appeal, the BOA reviews its preliminary assessment to determine whether a correction or amendment is merited. If changes or corrections are made, the board sends a notice to the taxpayer and, if the taxpayer concurs, the appeal is dismissed and the new assessed value used for taxation purposes. Taxpayers who disagree with any changes made are required to notify the BOA within 30 days of the date the notice of change was mailed.
The BOA then has up to 90 days from the date of receipt of the taxpayer’s notice of appeal to review it and notify the taxpayer of any corrections or changes. The property valuation asserted by the taxpayer on a property-tax return or notice of appeal becomes the assessed fair-market value of the property for the tax year under appeal if the BOA fails to respond within this period. If no valuation was submitted by the taxpayer, the appeal proceeds to the BOE, which requires the BOA to forward the notice of appeal to the appeal administrator (i.e., the clerk of Superior Court) for scheduling on the BOE hearing calendar.
Within 15 days after receipt of the notice of appeal, the appeal administrator sets a date for a hearing within 30 days of the date of notification — but not earlier than 20 days — and notifies the taxpayer and BOA of the date and time for the hearing. If more than one property is under appeal, the BOE is required to consolidate the appeals in one hearing upon the request of the taxpayer. 
Alternatively, the taxpayer may appeal some assessments or issues to an arbitrator or a hearing officer (for non-homestead real property with a fair-market value in excess of $750,000 and any contiguous non-homestead real property owned by the same taxpayer or for one or more wireless properties with a value of more than $750,000). 
The process is much like a civil court hearing. The taxpayer and assessors’ board staff are required to present evidence relating to the issue on appeal, i.e., taxability, uniformity of assessment, value or denial of homestead exemption. The taxpayer has the option of presenting evidence first or waiting until assessors’ board staff concludes its presentation. Each party is typically allowed 10 minutes to present its case. The standard used for deciding issues is a “preponderance of the evidence,” meaning that the party with the most convincing evidence prevails. The assessors’ board has the burden of proof for issues involving taxability but, with respect to an issue over tax exemption, the taxpayer has the burden. Either party has the right to respond to the other party’s evidence on any issue and to cross-examine all witnesses...

In Decatur, all values are determined and all appeals are handled by DeKalb County.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

DeKalb County tax bills going out this week

The DeKalb County tax commissioner’s office says that their annual property tax bills will be mailed out this Saturday. Here’s a notice from their website:
Please note that the 2015 DeKalb County Tax Statements will be mailed out August 15th. This website will be updated with the 2015 tax amounts and copies of the bills at that time. The 2015 installment deadlines will be September 30th and November 15th. If you intend on making a single payment, payment must be received by the September 30th deadline in order to avoid receiving a 5% late fee. Properties under appeal at the time the statements are mailed are billed at a lower value until the appeal is completed. 

DeKalb’s bills are separate from the City of Decatur’s 2nd installment property tax bills which will be mailed out on October 20 and will be due by December 21, 2015.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Former lawmaker calls for constitutional cap on tax assessments

Former state representative Ed Lindsey recently wrote that, “The General Assembly needs to put a constitutional amendment to limit property tax assessments on the ballot in 2016” in a Peach Pundit blog post. Mr. Lindsey is calling for “limiting annual increases to no more than 3% or the rate of inflation, whichever is less.”

Atlanta Journal Constitution columnist Kyle Wingfield made a similar proposal a couple of weeks ago for a 2.4 percent cap on annual assessment increases.

Friday, July 31, 2015

4 tax elements of DeKalb soccer deal

The draft memorandum of understanding (MOU) between DeKalb County and the new Atlanta United soccer team includes several provisions related to taxes:

Property tax exemption
Sec. 1(i) of the MOU says “…Atlanta United’s interest in the Project will constitute a usufruct, and the County will use its best efforts to cause the DeKalb County Chief Appraiser/Board of Tax Assessors to confirm the Parties’ determination of such interest as a usufruct.” I take this to mean that the property of the soccer headquarters and complex would be exempt from property taxes because the deed would stay in the name of a tax-exempt entity (DeKalb County or the DeKalb County development authority) because the agreement allows Atlanta United to use (as a usufruct) the land without owning it. (See an explanation of usufruct under Georgia tax law here.)

Income tax credits
Sec. 5(a) of the MOU says that DeKalb would seek opportunity zone status from the Georgia Department of Community Affairs. “If awarded, the Operator [Atlanta United] shall be eligible to apply job tax credits up to $3,500 per job created as an offset to its State of Georgia income tax liability.”

Sales tax capital outlay
Sec. 5(c) of the agreement says that “The County’s efforts shall include proposing that the Board of Commissioners of the County include Pedestrian Connectivity improvements in the proposed March 2016 Referendum Ballot for approval as an authorized Capital Outlay Project from a Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax.” In other words, a portion of one of the existing seven pennies of local sales taxes would go toward pedestrian connectivity from the soccer site to the Kensington MARTA station.

Tax allocation district
Sec. 5(f) of the agreement says that “…The County agrees to discuss in good faith permitting the use of any accumulated funds from any applicable tax allocation district to be utilized for any permissible expense… with respect to the construction, maintenance of Phase 2 of the Project… The County will use its best efforts to obtain the participation of the DeKalb County School Board in this tax allocation district.”