Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Lessons for cities from the Target breach

The theft of credit and debit card data from Target stores during the Christmas shopping season is a reminder of the necessity for merchants to incorporate rigorous safeguards into their payment acceptance environment.

The City of Decatur and any other government entities that accept credit card payments qualify as “merchants” under payment card industry (PCI) standards. 

Decatur handles over 10,000 credit card transactions representing over $1 million annually across different departments and facilities.  Although this is a tiny volume of transactions compared to big chain stores like Target, and although we do not use point-of-sale devices such as those suspected in the Target breach (keypads with magnetic stripe readers and digital signature pads), the City is not immunized from the risk of breaches.

We have been working over the past several months on enhancing protections of credit card data for our taxpayers and other paying customers, and have begun receiving vulnerability scans on a monthly basis.
Funds were approved in Decatur’s FY13-14 budget to have a formal PCI gap analysis conducted by a an approved scanning vendor, and we are close to entering an agreement for the service.  This analysis would be performed under new, more comprehensive payment card standards (PCI-DSS 3.0) standards that go into effect tomorrow.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Attorney deadline in 10 days

If you are practicing law in Decatur, your annual occupation tax of $400 and administrative fee of $25 are due no later than Dec. 31.  This tax is for revenue purposes only.

Several lawyers have already taken advantage of our new web service which allows for payments to be made online by credit card with no additional fees. 

If you intend to pay online, go to this site.  For the year, change the selected year to 2013 (lawyers pay for the current year, while all other professionals and businesses pay for the upcoming year).  For the “business name,” enter your actual name as it appears on your bill (first name first, last name second).  Once you’ve found your record, click “renew” to pay.  Please do not select 2014 and do not search by the name of your law firm.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Reminder: property taxes due Friday

Decatur’s second installment tax payment deadline for 2013 is Friday, December 20.
If you are not sure whether your bill has been paid or have misplaced your bill, you can check your account online at www.decaturgatax.com or call us at 404-370-4100.
The bills were originally mailed out in October.  Penalties and interest will begin accruing on Jan. 8.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Georgia community taxed out of existence?

In coastal Georgia, the Geechee residents of Sapelo Island were notified last year and again this year of property assessments that increased by 500 or 600 percent. Residents who were used to paying a few hundred dollars in property taxes now have to pay thousands.

The tax bills may cause the mostly low-income residents of Hog Hammock in Sapelo to sell their homes and eventually dissolve the African-American community that's lived on the island since the 1700s.

The McIntosh County tax assessor's hands are tied.  State law requires assessments to be based on what a willing buyer and seller would agree to in an arm's length sale.  Recent property sales in Sapelo to mainland buyers have led to the skyrocketing assessments. Sales data is an essential component of modern assessment techniques.

Therefore, in my opinion, if Hog Hammock is to be preserved, the most logical route may be through special legislation, such as preferential tax treatment of Hog Hammock as a historic district, or targeted homestead exemptions or freezes that would reduce the tax bills.

However, proposals for a Sapelo Island study committee haven't gone anywhere during previous sessions of the Georgia General Assembly.

Residents are mounting a legal challenge to their assessments which, based on my understanding of Georgia's tax code, will be an uphill climb. 

A more effective approach than hiring a lawyer may be to hire a lobbyist to help them build a broader coalition of support at the state capitol in 2014.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Decatur bills 638 insurance companies

Earlier this month, Decatur sent bills for $75 to 638 insurance carriers that write policies in the city.  Insurance companies can mail in their payments or--for the first time--pay by credit card online at www.decaturgatax.com/BusinessLicense.

State law says the license fee is imposed on insurance companies “for the privilege of engaging in the business of insurance” within Georgia’s cities.  The fee varies by city based on population in accordance with a state formula.

At $75 per carrier, Decatur’s insurance company billing for 2014 amounts to $47,850.  The fee payments represent about 10 percent of the city’s total occupational tax revenues, which go toward city operations and services.  During the last fiscal year, the city collected about $43,500 in license fees from insurance companies.
Our tax collection rate from insurance companies tends to be lower than other occupational tax types partly because of unpredictability and variation in the insurance market each year.  If an insurance company writes no business in Decatur in a given year, they are not required to pay the fee for that year.

In addition to their payment, insurance companies are required to file a notarized affidavit annually regarding their compliance with immigration laws.  If they renew online, they can just upload their affidavit rather than mailing it in.

Local, independent insurance companies are required to obtain a regular business license from City Hall which may run from $315 to $425 annually.

The city does not regulate insurance practices; Georgia’s insurance commissioner regulates insurance companies and licenses insurance agents.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Tax implications of the Braves move

As the Atlanta Braves prepare to move up the road, Cobb County businesses, residents, and visitors will face a handful of new or increased taxes.  Here’s what we know of so far:

·         A 3-mill property tax increase for 175 businesses in the Cumberland Community Improvement District, stretching from parts of Paces Ferry to Powers Ferry.
·         A new 3 percent car rental tax countywide.
·         A new $3 per room per night hotel tax at hotels in the Cumberland area.
·         $368 million in Cobb County Exhibit Hall Authority bonds over 30 years.
·         A reallocation of $8.7 million in property taxes collected countwide—money that would have otherwise been spent on by Cobb County other recreation and greenspace initiatives.
·         45 acres of the new Braves site will be taxable, but 15 acres will be tax-exempt.


·         Future highway access improvements to the stadium and who will pay for them.
·         Will retailers in the Cumberland CID pass their higher property tax costs onto their customers in the form of higher prices?  Forbes’s “Tax Girl” Kelly Erb says, “Of course, savvy consumers realize that corporations don’t simply eat tax and other increases: they pass those increases along to consumers. Higher taxes for businesses will likely result in higher costs for taxpayers, just on a receipt and not on a tax bill.”
·         Will Atlanta itself receive any tax reduction now that the Braves are departing?

Taken in combination with the renewal of Cobb’s SPLOST earlier this month, it seems like Cobb County’s reputation as a low-tax haven in metro-Atlanta may be fading somewhat—a phenomenon which, over time, could help Decatur and DeKalb’s attractiveness in the metro-area by comparison.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Tax recap from Election Day

Voters in several North Georgia cities and counties cast ballots on a host of tax measures in last Tuesday’s elections.

A 54-46 majority of voters in Cobb County, a traditionally low-tax county, authorized a $68 million bond that could raise Cobb’s property tax millage rate by 2 mills, which would increase taxes there by $200 annually per $100,000 in assessed value.

Also in the metro-area, majorities in Gwinnett County (58-41) and Henry County (54-46) approved renewals of 1 percent special local option sales taxes (SPLOST), and Rockdale County voters passed a 1-cent sales tax for education. 

Elsewhere in North Georgia, majorities in Lumpkin (70-30), Walker (68-32), Carroll, Gilmer, Haralson, Madison, and Union County also approved SPLOSTs.

Anti-tax sentiment was more pronounced in Habersham County, where SPLOST renewal was defeated 54-46, and in Fayette County where a SPLOST for stormwater drainage projects was defeated 57-43.  A SPLOST in Floyd County barely passed.

Voters in the City of Clarkesville in Habersham County passed tax relief for businesses by approving Freeport exemptions on business inventories.

The City of Decatur and DeKalb County had no proposed tax changes on the ballot.

Monday, November 4, 2013

City launches online payment option for lawyers

This year, for the first time, lawyers can pay their occupation tax online with a credit card from the convenience of their law office or home.

Each attorney practicing law in Decatur pays a $425 annual occupation tax to the city, which is billed on Oct. 31 and due no later than Dec. 31.

Our new online system allows for payments by Visa, MasterCard, Discover, American Express, and Paypal.  No additional fees are imposed for paying on the web--just the $425 amount. This is a pretty good deal for occupation taxpayers considering that other types of local government taxes often involve surcharges for online payments.

Users are not required to create an account.  There is no registration process, no login or user name, no passwords, and no PINs. 

To use the service, just go to decaturgatax.com and click on "Occupation Tax" on the upper left. Select 2013 as the year, search by "Business Name" and enter your name as it appears on your tax statement to pull up your record.  Once you've accessed your record, you'll see your option to pay.

We still accept cash, check, or charge in person, and checks through the mail.  But we encourage all lawyers to consider using the new online service.

The city also accepts online credit card payments for recreation programs, after-school and summer camp registration, parking tickets, commercial sanitation services, storm water drainage fees, and property taxes.  This latest addition to the city's online payment menu stems from the city's ongoing commitment to support local professionals and businesses through greater automation of services.

Online renewals for regular business license payments will be available later this year.

Monday, October 28, 2013

City mails out 8,000 tax bills

Decatur’s property tax bills for the second installment of 2013 were mailed out a little over a week ago.  If you haven’t received your paper bill yet, please call us at 404-370-4100 to confirm that we have the right mailing address on file, or you can access your bill online.

Please note that we do not send paper tax bills to mortgage companies, so you should forward your bill to your lender if your taxes are paid out of escrow. 

If you have recently sold your property but have received a bill from us, keep in mind that DeKalb County does not instantly notify us of changes in ownership.  Please forward your bill to the new owner so they are aware of the taxes owed before the payment deadline passes on Dec. 20.

Your second installment bill reflects the total year’s billing—including all taxes, fees, and payments made during the first installment (between April and June).  If you have any questions about the calculation, please give us a call or a visit!

Monday, August 19, 2013

Library hosts debt clinic

When dealing with delinquent property tax accounts, we sometimes hear from homeowners who are also struggling with personal debts.  A consumer debt clinic will be held tomorrow night at the DeKalb Library, which would be a good opportunity for residents in this situation.

This notice appeared in this week's DeKalb Champion:
The Decatur Library is hosting a free consumer debt clinic Tuesday, Aug. 20, 5:30-7 p.m. The event is suitable for those struggling with debt, who have been sued for a debt or need information about debt.  Representatives of the DeKalb Volunteer Lawyers Foundation will be on hand to answer questions.  Local attorneys will discuss information regarding debt cases in DeKalb County and facilitate one-on-one consultations.  Participants should bring all documents related to their cases.  The Decatur Library is located at 215 Sycamore Street, Decatur.  For more information, call (404) 370-3070. 

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Sales tax holiday coming up Aug. 9-10

Shoppers in Georgia will have a chance late next week to purchase certain school supplies, computers, and clothing without paying sales tax. You can see a full list of what's eligible for the sales tax exemption at the state Department of Revenue's website. The sales tax in DeKalb County is normally 7 percent, so this is a good chance to save some money!

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Residents' exemptions in 2013

The owners of 72 percent of the 7,092 residential properties in Decatur have a homestead exemption with the city in 2013.  The remaining 28 percent of residential properties do not have homestead exemptions.  There are a many possible reasons why no homestead exemption is claimed for a residential property:  it could be rented out, vacant, under development, owned by a company or bank, or the parcel may be too small to build a house (such as a rear or side lot that is just land).  Either the owner doesn't live at the property, it is not his or her primary residence, or he or she hasn't applied for the homestead exemption.

Of the residents who do have a homestead exemption, most of them just have the basic homestead exemption, meaning that they do not qualify for our age-based or income-based exemptions.

Six percent of residential property owners qualify for an age-based exemption (meaning they have reached the age of at least 65), but do not qualify for exemptions that requires a specific income in order to qualify.  Eight percent of residents qualify for exemptions that are based both on age and an income limit.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Decatur property tax resources

City Hall will be closed tomorrow for Independence Day.  The Revenue Division and all other non-public safety operations of the City will also be closed on Friday, July 5.

If need tax information during that time, please use our website at http://www.decaturgatax.com/ where you can look up tax records for any property within city limits.  The website also allows you to print a tax bill, a receipt, make a payment with a convenience fee, or access commercial sanitation accounts.  If you're having trouble finding a record, please be sure to look at the "Search Tips" box to the right of where you enter the information you're keying in.  The tips looks like this:

If you're searching by property ID, please use spaces but not hyphens.  If searching by address, do not use punctuation.  If you've tried those techniques without success, the property may not be in the City of Decatur.  Most Decatur properties have a ZIP code of 30030.

General information about Decatur's tax bills can also be found here.  If you also need information about a DeKalb County tax bill, which is a separate bill from Decatur's, you can visit http://web.co.dekalb.ga.us/TaxCommissioner/tc-home.html.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Three DeKalb cities propose millage rate increases

The city councils of Stone Mountain, Brookhaven, and Avondale Estates have all tentatively adopted millage rate increases that would increase property taxes in those communities.

Avondale Estates proposed an increase of 1.75 mills, which would increase property taxes there by about 17 percent. Stone Mountain tentatively adopted an increase of 6.211 mills, or 28 percent, and will have a public hearing on July 2. Brookhaven is considering a 3.35 millage rate which would replace taxes previously levied by DeKalb, with a final vote scheduled for July 8.

Decatur’s City Commission adopted a budget on June 17 that kept millage rates the same as last year.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Fewer homeowners receive age-80 exemption in 2013

While there has been an increase over the past five years in the number of Decatur residents who qualify for age-based homestead exemptions in their sixties and seventies, the number of property owners who qualify for the age-80 or “S2” exemption appears to be flat-lining or declining slightly.

This graph shows age and income-based exemptions with the bright green line at the bottom showing the trend for the number of residents with the S2 exemption:

All resident homeowners can qualify for a basic homestead exemption.  Homeowners in Decatur begin qualifying for additional property tax exemptions depending on their age and income after they turn 62.  Residents who are 80 or older as of January 1 may qualify for the S2 exemption which exempts them from paying school taxes if the federal adjusted gross income of the owner and the owner’s spouse is less than $40,000 a year.

About 210 residents received the S2 each year from 2008 to 2011, but that number fell to 197 in 2012 and 188 this year, suggesting that there may be somewhat fewer people remaining in their houses into their eighties, or that more elderly residents exceed the income limit for the age 80 exemption.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Grace period for tax payments expires today

Decatur's first installment property tax bills for 2013 were due on June 3.  No penalties or interest have been added to accounts yet, but this grace period ends today.  Please mail your check to:
     City of Decatur
     PO Box 945650
     Atlanta, GA  30394-5650
We honor postmarks, so there is no need to overnight your payment.
Unpaid balances as of tomorrow will be subject to a 10 percent penalty and 1 percent interest.

Monday, June 10, 2013

How Decatur compares in online payments

The City of Decatur accepted approximately $1.4 million in online payments from July 2011 to June 2012.  This included 9,000 separate web-based transactions involving $600K in fees for recreation and after-school programs, $500K in court fines and fees, and $300K for property taxes.

The Center for Performance Management reports that the average volume of payments made last year was $482,140 for cities like ours with populations under 25,000, suggesting that more payments are made online to Decatur compared to other cities our size.  However, online payments to municipalities can vary significantly depending on whether the jurisdiction does its own tax or utility billing.  For example, the City of Cartersville, Georgia, took in over $4 million in online payments last year, but that included online payments for electric, water and sewer bills.  Decatur does its own tax billing but does not do utility billing.

Online payment options are offered to provide convenience for individuals and businesses making payments to the city.  The Revenue Division intends to expand online payment options by allowing businesses to renew their licenses online beginning this fall.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Tax payment grace period offered

Decatur's first installment property tax bills for 2013 were due yesterday.  But if you haven't mailed your check in yet, you're in luck--no penalties or interest will be added to accounts until June 17.
Please drop your check in the mail to the City of Decatur at PO Box 945650, Atlanta GA  30394-5650 or come by and see us before then.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Budget Expo tonight!

Stop by the inaugural Budget Expo from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 29th at the Decatur Recreation Center, 231 Sycamore Street. The “Touch a Budget” event will feature items included in the proposed budget, so come on out and chat with staff, see some cool things and maybe win a prize or two. 
It will be a good opportunity to see how your tax dollars are being spent!

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Did you receive your tax bill?

Decatur’s 1st installment property tax bills for 2013 were mailed out on April 1.  If you did not receive your bill, please call us at 404-370-4100 or log onto www.decaturgatax.com to access your invoice. Mailing address updates can also be submitted through that webpage.

If you are a new owner, it is possible that we have not received updated ownership information yet from DeKalb County, and your tax notice may have been mailed to the prior owner.

Payment is due in 30 days.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

5 days left to avoid late fees for business license renewals

The deadline for Decatur businesses to pay to renew their business license for their 2013 passed on January 31, 2013.  We have been sending past due notices to delinquent businesses monthly since then.  Businesses have a 90-day grace period to pay without penalty which expires April 30.  Late fees will be applied five business days from now if we still have not received payment.

Payment can be made in person at City Hall on 509 North McDonough Street, or by mail to the City of Decatur, P.O. Box 220, Decatur, GA  30031.

Renewal invoices were originally mailed on November 31, 2012.  Payments and immigration-related affidavits are due from each person or entity engaged in any business, trade, profession, or occupation in the city annually.

More  information about business licensing in the City of Decatur is available on our website here.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Last chance to apply for 2013 homestead exemption

If you are filing for a new homestead exemption in the City of Decatur for 2013, we can accept your application as late as April 1 by law.  However, we encourage all eligible homeowners to apply for any new exemptions no later than tomorrow, Mar. 15, to ensure your exemption appears on your 1st installment tax bill which will be mailed out April 1.

If you previously applied for a homestead exemption with the City of Decatur, you do not need to re-apply with us.  If you filed for an exemption with DeKalb, you must also apply with Decatur.  You must also apply if you qualify for a new exemption based on age or income.

Further information on local homestead exemptions can be found at www.decaturga.com/homestead.

Eligible residents can apply for the basic homestead exemption on our website here.  For exemptions based on age or income, please come to City Hall at 509 North McDonough Street.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Time runs out for tax and fee bill in 2013

Legislators were unable to work out their differences in time for HB 159 to receive a House vote and consideration in the Senate for 2013.  

The Georgia Municipal Association, which opposed the bill, said the legislation would "have stifled the ability of city governments to work on behalf of their citizens," but pledged to continue working with Rep. Harrell, the bill's author.

GMA also noted that "a bi-partisan group of House members expressed concerns that this bill would reduce the efficiency many cities and counties use in billing for ad valorem and property-related fees and assessments."

Technically, the bill is still "alive" and could be reintroduced for a floor vote in 2014 without having to go through committee mark-up.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Tax and fee bill tabled in House of Representatives

House Bill 159, which would require separate bills for local property taxes and and local fees, has been at least temporarily withdrawn, or tabled, in the Georgia House of Representatives.

The clerk's office of the House of Representatives told me that the tabling took place after a lengthy floor debate.  Presumably, disagreements over the bill suggested to the sponsors that there was not enough support for the measure as currently written to pass a floor vote at this time.  Due to the legislative calendar, representatives would have to work out their final differences for a vote today in order for the state senate to consider the measure this year.  If they cannot reach an agreement today, the bill can be taken up again next year.

As I've pointed out before, one of the unintended consequences of this bill would be that Decatur residents would receive five separate tax and fee bills from the city and county annually.  The admininistrative costs of billing would increase and collection rates for stormwater drainage and sanitation services would decline.

Jimmy Orr, a member of the Gwinnett County Stormwater Authority, has laid out a thoughtful critique of HB 159 in a letter to the editor of the Gwinnett Daily Post that's worth a read.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

City promotes homestead exemptions

In an effort to help remind homeowners about homestead exemptions based on age or income offered by the City of Decatur, the Revenue Division has sent out this postcard to about 650 residents who we think may be eligible to apply:

If you have previously applied for a homestead exemption, you do not need to re-apply. If you filed for a homestead exemption with DeKalb County, you must also apply with the City of Decatur. You must also apply if you now qualify for an exemption based on age or income for which you did not previously qualify. 

If you reside at the property you own, you may apply for the general homestead exemption online. Applicants for all other exemptions must apply in person at Decatur City Hall, 509 N. McDonough St., Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m.  Please come in as soon as possible.

More information is available at www.decaturga.com/homestead.

Friday, March 1, 2013

5 reasons to file a return of property

DeKalb and Decatur residents will receive assessment notices from DeKalb County in May.  If you disagree with your value, you can begin your appeal at that time.  Or you can get ahead of the game by filing a return of your property with DeKalb County prior to April 1.

Filing an annual return of business personal property is required.  Filing a return of real property such as your home or other real estate property is optional.  Along with the reasons I mentioned the other day, several additional purposes are served by filing a return before April 1:
  • To request a review of the appraised value of your real estate property
  • To report additions, improvements, or removal buildings or structures on your real property
  • To report that your business has closed or that you've begun a new business
  • To report new personal property such as business equipment
  • To report the depreciation of your property's value
I encourage property owners who fall into these categories to consider filing a return.  It may help reduce lag time in the final determination of your taxable value for 2013.

The bullet points above are adapted from suggestions made by Hall County tax assessors office to their taxpayers.  Return and appeal procedures are basically the same statewide.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Reminder to file business property return

If a business in Georgia has tangible property worth more than $7,500, they are required to pay an annual business personal property tax bill.  Currently this affects about 450 business owners in Decatur, who pay personal property taxes to both the City of Decatur and DeKalb County.

We run into many business owners who either do not know or disagree with the valuation of their personal property.  If you fall into this category, I recommend that you file a return of your business personal property with the DeKalb County tax assessor's office prior to their April 1 deadline to help ensure an accurate value for tax year 2013.

Being familiar with your own taxable property and its value is the best way to prevent surprises later on in the year when you receive your annual bill.  If you or your business purchased property or had any significant changes to your fixed assets or business inventory, please let the county know.

Here are the guidelines from DeKalb County's website:
Georgia statutes and regulations require that all aircraft, boats, and tangible business personal property (furniture, fixtures, equipment, inventory, leaseholds. etc.) be reported annually. Business personal property used or located in DeKalb County should be reported on a "PT50P Business Personal Property Tax Return".
Statutes require that a value be determined even if the owner fails to file a BAR or return of value. Failure to file timely subjects the owner to possible penalties, loss of depreciation, and exemptions, if applicable.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Tax office offers special Saturday hours tomorrow

The property tax office at City Hall, 509 North McDonough Street, will be open Saturday, February 23, from 9:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m.  These hours offer more opportunities for one-on-one customer service to the community--especially for those who are not able to stop by during the regular workweek.

If you have a property tax, homestead exemption, business license, or any other local tax matter to take care of, please stop by and see us!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

New video made about property taxes in Georgia

The Association of County Commissioners of Georgia has produced a video entitled "Facts About Your Property Tax - An Investment in Your Community."

The video describes how local government services in Georgia are funded, the services that are typically provided, how budgets and millage rates are adopted, and how properties are assessed and billed.  The video also draws some comparisons to illustrate how much government services cost per taxpayer; for example, it says that your share for the cost of library services annually works out to about the cost of one hardback book.

The video says that the average county property tax bill statewide is about $1,500.  Taxes in cities tend to be higher than taxes in counties because cities traditionally provide more services than counties.

The video also makes the point that the annual assessment notice you receive in May details your options for appeal if you disagree with your assessed value.  It's suggested that the time to consider an appeal is when you receive the assessment notice, not later in the year when you receive your bill.

It's informative and worth watching.  My favorite scene is when the firefighter carries a dog from a house:

The ACCG has also launched a website called "Facts About Property Tax" with more information for Georgia property taxpayers.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Income tax filing assistance offered at Decatur Library

Need help preparing your income tax return?  The AARP is offering assistance at the Decatur Library on 215 Sycamore Street on Wednesdays and Fridays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. between now and April 15.  This news comes from Feb. 14-20 edition of The Champion:

AARP Foundation Tax-Aide provides free tax assistance and preparation

Free tax assistance and preparation for low- and moderate-income taxpayers of all ages, is available from AARP Foundation Tax-Aide through April 15.  Those seeking assistance do not need to be members of AARP or retirees to use this service.

AARP Foundation Tax-Aide volunteers, trained in cooperation with the Internal Revenue Service, offer help with personal income tax returns at various locations around Georgia.

"Tax law can often be confusing.  AARP Foundation Tax-Aide volunteers can make the process of filling out tax returns easier," said Helen Lowenthal, district coordinator for much of DeKalb County...
More information about the AARP's program can be found here.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Budget season is here

Welcome to the time of year officially known as ‘Budget Season’ to those of us in City departments. Similar to other “seasons”, such as the holiday season, hunting season, harvest season, tax season, etc., there is much to do in a short amount of time.

Each year the City invites residents to participate in the budget process through community budget gatherings. The goal of the gatherings is to provide relevant budget and financial information in an informal environment so that participants can better understand the City's budget process, including how revenue and expenditure recommendations are made. Concerns and priorities received from past participants have helped guide budget decision-making and prompted thoughtful budget discussions among City departments. If being a part of such a group interests you, I hope that you will consider joining members of the staff at one or more of three community budget gatherings. The meetings are currently scheduled for March 12th at 7:00 p.m. at City Hall; April 16th at a time and place to be determined; and May 14th at 7:00 p.m. at City Hall.

If you can’t make it to one of the community budget gatherings, fear not, there will be other opportunities to participate. More on that in a later post. For now, check out the Budget page on the City’s website for a schedule of important dates and links to past budgets.

City sends nearly 400 ‘Intents to FiFa’

Decatur is sending notices to about 270 property owners who owe a total of $570,000 real property taxes to the city and the school system for 2012 and any other outstanding balances.  These letters provide notice that we intend to file a lien (also known as fieri facias, a “FiFa”, meaning a writ of execution) unless the taxes are paid within 30 days.

Decatur is also sending notices to over a hundred business personal property owners—mostly businesses with taxable inventory—who owe about $100,000 in taxes to the city and schools.

For comparison, Decatur sent 350 Intents to FiFa for unpaid real property taxes around this time last year.

This is, at a minimum, the third notice that we have sent attempting to collect payment.  The original bills were mailed on October 20, 2012.  Past due notices were sent on Jan. 14, 2013.  Bills are also available our website 24/7.  If the debt is owed on more than one installment, multiple notices have been sent on a regular basis since the account first became delinquent.

If the taxes owed are not paid before the 30-day deadline, a lien will be filed against the property.  A tax lien can lower a property owner’s credit score.

Property owners interested in making payment arrangements with us must apply to do so before the 30-day deadline elapses.  Such requests will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis for residents with valid reasons, a substantial down payment, and a history of timely payments.  Even if approved for extended payment arrangements, a lien will still be set against the property to protect the city’s interests.

Please be aware that if a payment was made within the last few business days, there may have been a delay in applying your payment to your account while our bank processed the payment.  If you receive a notice but have just recently paid, please disregard the notice or call us at 404-370-4100 to confirm that your account is paid current.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

State rep seeks to separate taxes from fees

Rep. Brett Harrell (R-Snellville) has introduced a bill in the state House that would require Georgia cities and counties to remove any nontax fees from property tax bills. Such fees would have to be billed separately, or on two separate sheets within the same envelope.

In addition to concerns that have been raised about local implementation costs and the adverse impact this would have on collecting fees, this would also mean that most Decatur residents would probably receive five local government bills annually:  three city bills (two installments of city property tax bills and a city fee bill) and two county bills (a county tax bill and a county fee bill).

This would almost certainly require us to create separate resident accounts to track your fees separately from your taxes, which means residents would have two city account IDs (your property or parcel ID plus a fee ID).  I'm not sure if DeKalb's system would work the same way, but if they do, that would mean that most residents would have four local government tax and fee accounts to keep up with.

This proposal is somewhat different from Rep. Harrell’s House Bill 291 last year, which would have required partial payments to be applied to taxes prior to being applied to nontax fees. That bill died in the House in 2011.

The Patch has this report:
Should Non-Tax Fees Be Removed From Property Tax Bills?

House Bill 159 would limit what type of fees municipalities could add to residents' property tax bills.
A bill introduced in the Georgia General Assembly last week by state Rep. Brett Harrell would prohibit municipalities from adding non-tax fees to property tax bills. Harrell initially introduced the bill in 2011 with nearly 60 co-signers.
“Too often citizens across Georgia experience increased property tax bills, higher monthly mortgage payments, and, in some cases, liens against their property, all resulting from the addition of non-tax fees added to their property tax bills,” Harrell said. “The type and number of fees continues to increase each year.  This legislation will help ease the burden on Georgia households and increase government transparency.”
Harrell said House Bill 159 addresses a growing concern among property owners statewide as home prices remain low. He said Georgians have to carefully budget their money and it doesn't help to have to face increasing property tax bills.
The municipalities, however, argue that fees are bills that have to be paid -- such as for the sanitation services in Gwinnett that caused so much controversy when first introduced. Robert Mesteller, a Snellville resident, took on the county on this issue last year, claiming it was illegal and unconstitutional to collect fees for sanitation services on property tax bills. His lawsuit was not successful, but is currently under appeal and awaiting a ruling from the Georgia Supreme Court. Gwinnett County officials cautioned that a change in the system could actually end up costing some taxpayers more in the long run.
When Mesteller filed his appeal, Gwinnett County communications director Joe Sorenson said a new billing system would have to be created if sanitation services could no longer be collected on property tax bills -- and that it would be costly.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Decatur architects lead the way

Sample business license for Decatur (county seat of DeKalb County)
Business license for a local architect

Now that the deadline for local businesses to renew their licenses for 2013 has passed, I would like to salute local architects doing business in the City of Decatur, who have the highest rate of occupation tax compliance of any profession or business type in the city so far for this year.  Our collection rate from architects is about 30 percent higher than other categories of businesses at this point—a testament to their attention to detail!

Businesses that are past due will receive courtesy notices shortly from the Revenue Division.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Most common business license fee in Decatur: $255

Although some businesses in Decatur are required to pay up to $485 per year for their business license, the majority of local businesses are charged a $230 occupational tax plus a $25 administrative fee as “Class 2” businesses under the city’s occupation tax ordinances.  About 245 of Decatur’s 510 local businesses (excluding home-based businesses, professionals such as doctors and architects, and insurance carriers) fall under Class 2, which includes most restaurants and many retailers.

The majority of Decatur businesses pay the second lowest tax class rate out of 7 rates

The city’s occupational tax rates are based on profitability ratios.  The concept is that, generally speaking, businesses in lines of work that are more profitable are expected to pay a higher occupation tax rate that businesses that are less profitable.

More information on Decatur’s business licensing fees can be found on our website here.  The deadline for businesses to pay for a 2013 license is this Wednesday.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Business license renewals due in 10 days

Each business in Decatur must renew its business license for 2013 by paying its annual occupation tax bill by Jan. 31.  Bills were originally mailed on Nov. 30.

In addition to the renewal payment, state law also requires businesses to file two notarized immigration-related affidavits (SAVE and E-verify) annually with the city they receive their license from.  You can submit your payment and affidavits by mail to P.O. Box 220, Decatur, GA  30031 or in person at 509 N. McDonough St.

If you did not receive your bill, or if you received a bill but are no longer doing business in the city, please let us know.

Occupation tax bills in Decatur can range from $195 up to $460 annually.  Unlike many local governments in Georgia that tax businesses on their gross receipts, Decatur uses a simpler system of six flat rates.  Revenues from occupation taxes go to the City’s general fund, which is used to provide quality services to the public.

More information about business licensing in Decatur can be found on our website here.  Decatur’s business license rules apply to persons, partnerships, corporations and other entities including home-based businesses, state-licensed professionals, insurance carriers, and regular businesses.  City ordinances require local businesses to display their license in a place that’s easy to see.

Thanks to all our occupational taxpayers for choosing to do business in the City of Decatur!

Friday, January 18, 2013

City sends out 700 reminders

In an effort to notify property owners of any past due property tax balances from 2012 or earlier, the Revenue Division of the City of Decatur mailed out about 600 notices to owners with unpaid balances this week.  Penalties and interest accrued on unpaid balances since our payment grace period ended on January 7.  We mailed out the original bills October 2012.

The City is also sending invoices to about 90 local attorneys who have not yet paid their 2012 occupation taxes.

If you believe that you already paid, please call us at 404-370-4100 so we can rectify the situation.  To ensure the best service possible, please have a copy of your tax bill on hand when you call.

Attempting to collect back taxes due by sending these notices is vital part of upholding the City’s 2010 Strategic Plan, Principle C, by practicing good fiscal stewardship.  The unpaid bills represent about $1 million due to the City and the school system, which is slightly less due than normal for this time of year.

Monday, January 14, 2013

City tax collection rate inches up

The grace period for Decatur's 2012 second installment real property and annual business personal property tax payments expired on Jan. 7, 2013.  By the end of the grace period, the city normally has a collection rate for real property taxes of about 94 or 95 percent, with the remaining amount collected in subsequent months through delinquent collections, lien filing, and annual tax sale processes.  

By the end of the grace period this year, we are already at a 97 percent collection rate.  This represents an improvement of about $300,000 collected for the City and school system compared to the same deadline last year.

By the end of the tax sale, which we usually conduct each August, Decatur’s real property tax collection rate normally reaches 99.9 percent.  Thank you, Decatur taxpayers, for your timely payments and high rate of tax compliance!

Unfortunately, the collection rate for business personal property taxes (such as business inventory and equipment) is much lower than for real property, but the rate is consistent with prior year collections.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Property tax exemption not always automatic for Georgia charities

In a recent decision, the Court of Appeals of Georgia affirmed the denial of tax-exempt status for tax years 2008 and 2009 for a property owned by a Fulton County charity.  H.O.P.E. for Divine Interventions, an organization providing services to needy families, was entitled to the exemption in 2010 and subsequent years when it actually delivered charitable services, but not from 2008-09 while the gutted apartment building H.O.P.E owned was being constructed and renovated.

H.O.P.E. argued that the construction and renovation of the property was a necessary step in its ultimate purpose of housing formerly homeless tenants, and asserted that the building was never used for any non-charitable purpose.  But the Court of Appeals found that the tax code does not exempt properties from taxes where charitable use is still being planned.

The firm of Sutherland, Asbill, & Brennan LLP has a short analysis of the decision and a link to the full ruling here.

In Decatur, property owners can apply for tax-exempt status through the DeKalb County assessor’s office.  For tax purposes, the City of Decatur uses the taxable or tax-exempt status that DeKalb determines.

In 2012, the assessed value of tax-exempt property in Decatur is $87 million out of $1.2 billion in total assessed value, or 7 percent of underlying property value in the city.

Major tax-exempt properties in Decatur include DeKalb County, Agnes Scott, the City of Decatur, Columbia Seminary, the housing authority, DeKalb Medical, the First Baptist Church, Decatur First UMC, MARTA, and city schools.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Property tax grace period ends in 5 days

The City of Decatur’s second installment real property tax bills and business personal property tax bills for 2012 were due on Dec. 20.  No penalties or interest have been charged to past due accounts yet, but this grace period will end this Monday, Jan. 7.  After that, a 10 percent penalty and monthly interest charge of 1 percent will apply to unpaid amounts.

For the first time, we enclosed a return envelope with your tax bill that you can use to send your payment.  Previously, you had to provide your own envelope.  As long as you get your payment postmarked by Jan. 7, no penalties or interest will apply.

If you’re not sure about your payment status, you can check our website at www.decaturgatax.com.  Please be aware that payments may not display on the website until 48 hours after your check has cleared the bank.

On average, we will have collected 92 percent of taxes due to the City by the conclusion of the grace period.  The remaining 7.9 percent will be collected in subsequent weeks and months through our delinquent collections, tax lien, and tax sale processes.

On behalf of the Revenue Division, I’d like to thank all the taxpayers of Decatur for funding the high-quality services the City provides, and for giving us the opportunity to serve you!