Thursday, May 19, 2011

Property Tax Primer Followup

I posted what appears below on AthenTalks as a follow up to my most recent column about how property tax is determined.

A chart detailing the various millage rates charged in each of Athens-Clarke County’s five tax districts used to be posted on the Tax Commissioner’s web site; I could not find the chart on City Hall’s new and improved (and expensive) web site. Upon speaking with the staff at the Tax Commissioner’s office so as to verify my information, I was told that they will try to get that chart reposted. In the interim, see page 7 of this from the Georgia Department of Revenue for the current breakdown of millage rates here in Athens-Clarke County (does not have the rates for Bogart and Winterville).

For listings of exemptions, see these from the State of Georgia and these from Athens-Clarke County.

For discussions of assessments, see these from the State of Georgia and these from Athens-Clarke County.

While they do not apply to most cases, there are a couple of “preferential” assessment categories (rehabilitated historic property or landmark historic property) and several “special” assessment categories (preferential agricultural property, conservation use property, environmentally sensitive property, farm land property, brownfield property, residential transitional property), a category for timberland (standing), and one for equipment, machinery, and fixtures.

For the provisions of SB 346 that mandate annual assessment and estimated tax notices, see O.C.G.A. §48-5-306.

Then there is this from a blog posting over at TOA from June 2008:

Back in 2007, the Clarke County School District’s SPLOST 3 bond resolution included a provision that, should the limited duration sales tax be insufficient to repay said bonds, any shortfall would be added to the CCSD’s portion of the local property tax millage rate. Longtime readers may remember that I had two specific concerns with regard to any such transfer of bonded indebtedness to property taxes.

My first concern dealt with the 20 mills limit imposed by the state Constitution. The CCSD’s portion of the local property tax millage rate has been at the 20 mills limit for years; to exceed that limit would normally require the voters’ approval to do so via a referendum. So how could that line be administratively traversed so as to make up a SPLOST revenue shortfall without a referendum?

After a (very) long and circuitous journey through a variety of local and state government bureaucracies, the Attorney General’s office provided me with the relevant Georgia Supreme Court case law, Seaboard Air-Line Railway Company v. Wright, comptroller-general, et al., from way back in 1927, that exempted bond debt service from any constitutional limit. I do not agree with the reasoning embodied in that decision, as it would seem to render the rationale for the 20 mills limit moot, but the case law is what it is.

Satisfying my second concern has proven somewhat more vexing. The CCSD’s bond resolution cited a provision contained in the Constitution as expressly permitting the transfer of bonded indebtedness from SPLOST sales taxes to property taxes. That resolution read in part (see the second paragraph on page 5 of the PDF):

WHEREAS, Article IX, Section V, Paragraph VI of the Constitution of the State of Georgia requires that prior to the issuance of general obligation bonds, a tax must be levied in amounts sufficient to pay the principal of and the interest on the Bonds as the same become due and payable, to the extent that the revenues from the Sales Tax are not sufficient thereof;

The resolution was littered throughout with similar language. Being a nerdy type reasonably familiar with the verbiage in the Constitution, this immediately struck me as odd. Sure enough, when I went to the document itself, no such provision was anywhere to be found. The actual text of Article IX, Section V, Paragraph VI of the Constitution reads (see page 81):

"Levy of taxes to pay bonds; sinking fund required. Any county, municipality, or other political subdivision of this state shall at or before the time of incurring bonded indebtedness provide for the assessment and collection of an annual tax sufficient in amount to pay the principal and interest of said debt within 30 years from the incurring of such bonded indebtedness. The proceeds of this tax, together with any other moneys collected for this purpose, shall be placed in a sinking fund to be used exclusively for paying the principal and interest on such bonded debt. Such moneys shall be held and kept separate and apart from all other revenues collected and may be invested and reinvested as provided by law."

There is no mention whatsoever of transferring bonded indebtedness from a sales tax to property tax, just a general provision that a sinking fund to repay bonds be in place before such bonds are issued. Explicitly contrary to my reading of the CCSD’s resolution, the Constitution is mute on the subject of transferring any shortfall in sales tax collections to property tax “to the extent that revenues from the Sales Tax are not sufficient therefore.”

After an even longer and more circuitous journey through a variety of local and state government bureaucracies – the Attorney General’s office clammed up on me this time – I eventually discovered, after speaking with a bond attorney over in Atlanta, that the answer can be found in O.C.G.A. §48-1-121(c):

"No general obligation debt shall be issued in conjunction with the imposition of the tax unless the governing authority of the county or qualified municipalities within special district issuing the debt determines that, and if the debt is to be validated it is demonstrated in the validation proceedings that, during each year in which any payment of principal or interest on the debt comes due the county or qualified municipalities within special district issuing such debt will receive from the tax authorized by this part net proceeds sufficient to fully satisfy such liability. General obligation debt issued under this part shall be payable first from the separate account in which are placed the proceeds received by the county or qualified municipalities within the special district issuing such debt from the tax authorized by this part. Such debt, however, shall constitute a pledge of the full faith, credit, and taxing power of the county or qualified municipalities within the special district issuing such debt; and any liability on said debt which is not satisfied from the proceeds of the tax authorized by this part shall be satisfied from the general funds of the county or qualified municipalities within the special district issuing such debt."

Okay, that answers the question as to on what legal basis a shortfall in SPLOST sales taxes may be transferred to property taxes, though it is not explicitly stated in that manner.

But the question remains: why did not the CCSD’s bond resolution cite this section of state law? Why make language up out of whole cloth and claim that it is in the Constitution, when a few seconds on the Internet reveals that claim to be patently false?

Finally, consider the games that can be played with millage rates when they are considered irrespective of the “rollback rate“. This from another TOA post from May of 2009:

The 0.3 mills reduction in 2004 was due solely to the work of members of the Clarke County Republican Party, who analyzed the budget and presented a list of potential reductions to the folks down at City Hall. To their credit, the Mayor and Commission did adopt many of our recommendations, thereby “freeing up” funds for a millage rate reduction. It should never be forgotten, though, that the original plan was simply to spend the new revenue generated by growth in the tax digest (this last part always seems to get left out of the discussion).

The 0.6 mills reduction in 2005 was a sham, pure and simple. The millage rate reduction was offset by the institution of the stormwater utility fee (even the Unified Government’s budget documents acknowledged this) which, by design, also hit those property owners such as churches and schools who are exempt from property tax. Now, we will have the situation where the millage rate is back to within 0.2 mills of where it was prior to the imposition of the fee – a fee that will be with us forever regardless of future millage rate hikes. Because of increases in assessments the “rollback” rate in any given year may well be lower that the millage rate - so property taxes can actually go up if the millage rate stays constant or, in some cases, even goes down.

For what it is worth, my assessment and estimated tax notice arrived in the mail on Friday; after increasing in 2008 and remaining the same in 2009 and 2010, this years fair market value dropped (finally) by 11.61% - as well it should have.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Fine work and research on this timely issue!

Governments may be deluded about the continuing availability of credit and revenue. The momentum of their budgeting that included the 'false' revenue wrought by the housing bubble ensures they will not restrict spending in a timely fashion, and this may trigger a political backlash, or something similar.

A lot of office-holders are themselves subject to forces and controls that ultimately come from those who benefit the most from their spending. Our governments are parasitized and largely powerless to rid themselves from their spendthrift and reckless habits.