This is part two of an Atlanta Civic Circle series examining whether the city of Atlanta, Atlanta Public Schools, and Fulton County are losing significant tax revenue from the commercial property assessment gap.
In this story, we're examining Georgia’s property tax appeals law to understand why corporate property owners are able to keep their taxes so low. Are counties doing enough to ensure fair taxes?
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To quote Ben Franklin: “In this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” But taxes aren’t always so inevitable for many commercial property owners in Atlanta.
Over the last decade, many of the owners of the city’s skyscrapers, apartment complexes, office buildings, and shopping centers have successfully argued that their tax bill was too high and beat county assessors. That means the city of Atlanta, Atlanta Public Schools, and Fulton County may be losing out on millions of dollars in annual property taxes – which increases the tax burden for regular homeowners.
A research team at Georgia Tech’s School of Public Policy, led by assistant professor Brian An, studied Fulton County tax records from 2011 to 2022 and found that commercial property owners appealed their properties’ assessed fair market value 31,587 times over that period and were successful 62% of the time.
Consequently, they were able to lower their tax bill. According to the Georgia Tech researchers, the county lost at least $652 million in property taxes over those 12 years due to appeals of the assessment value – an average annual loss of $54 million.
So why was the county considering raising property taxes when many pricey commercial properties – often owned by massive out-of-state or international corporations – aren’t paying their fair share?
read part one in this series
Blame the broken appeals system, say some Fulton County officials.
Georgia’s appeals process for property tax assessments is outlined in Georgia Code in subsection known as 299(c). Property owners who disagree with their properties’ assessed value can file an appeal with their county’s Boards of Equalization for a hearing. As long as the owner provides written evidence or attends the appeal hearing, the value determined at the hearing will lock in for the next two years – whether or not they win or lose.
Property owners can repeat that process in perpetuity, says Fulton County Commissioner Dana Barrett (District 3).
“These commercial properties appeal, get the freeze, and as soon as the freeze goes away, they just appeal again, and it stays frozen year after year,” she says. “Then, after the freeze ends the price is so much higher than what they have been paying at their freeze level that the Board of Equalization or the Superior Court will see it as too high of an increase and will allow another appeal.”
The snowball effect of all of the appeals is that a significant amount of commercial property taxes are left on the table. According to a 2022 sales-ratio study by the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts (DOAA), 81 Georgia counties showed property assessment values that on average were 10% or more below fair market value. Fully 117 of the state’s 159 counties had assessments that on average were 5% or more below market value, even after significant increases in assessed values.
In Atlanta, commercial properties overall are being appraised on average at just 61% of their actual market value, according to the Georgia Tech study.
Compounding the problem, owners of the most expensive properties are most likely to file assessment appeals. Owners of commercial properties with an assessment valuation in the top 10% of all property valuations (over $3.9 million) are nine times more likely to file an appeal than those in the bottom 10% (under $32,000). What’s more, they are 13% more likely to win their appeal.
The Georgia Tech study noted that over the 2011-2022 data period, commercial properties that successfully appealed to freeze or lower the assessed valuation sold on average at a market price that was double that of properties that didn’t.
“Taken all together, these findings raise significant concerns over the design of the current appeal system for commercial properties in Georgia,” the study concluded.
A case study
For instance, Ponce City Market, which opened in 2014 in the old Sears-Roebuck building at 675 Ponce De Leon Avenue, had its appraised value frozen at $28 million from 2014 until 2020 due to tax breaks from being in the Beltline Tax Allocation District (TAD).Consequently, from 2016 to 2020, it only paid between $125,000 and $135,000 annually in property taxes to the city of Atlanta and another $50,000 to $56,000 to Fulton County.
By 2022, the estimated valuation of Ponce City Market was $1 billion. (A Singaporean wealth fund and two German institutional investment funds paid an estimated $500 million for a 49% stake in it last year.) But even though the fair market value was only set at about $320 million, according to tax records, Ponce City Market’s owner, Jamestown – a global real estate investment firm with $11 billion in assets – appealed anyway.
Roderick Conley, Fulton County’s chief appraiser, says the appeal process was initially set up to protect taxpayers, including homeowners. However, special interest groups are using the system as a loophole to avoid taxes, he adds. “The reality is these commercial properties and the attorneys who represent them—they’re very knowledgeable in the [appeals] process.”
Former Invest Atlanta board member Julian Bene, now a watchdog on commercial property taxes, says Atlanta and Fulton are missing out on millions in taxes by not pushing back harder on these trophy property appeals – and suggested hiring third-party appraisers to match the firepower of the owners’ appeals teams.
“They’re not trying. They’re not fielding a competent team for this trophy segment, and the results are what they are,” said Bene.
The property tax appeals problem is far from only a Fulton County issue.
Paulding County, in the greater metro area to the northwest, doesn’t have Atlanta’s skyscrapers and $100 million-plus properties, but it’s among Georgia counties also examining the issue.
James Stokes, Paulding’s chief appraiser, has studied four years of assessment appeals from 2019 to 2022 and found that appeals have become a more pressing issue as the county grows.
According to his data, 92% of all Paulding property valuation freezes due to appeals were for commercial properties – the other 8% were for homestead exemptions filed by homeowners. What’s more, 79% of appeals over the county’s property assessments were filed by large corporations.
In 2022, over half (54%) of the appeals were filed by a single entity – Ryan, which is in the business of finding “tax recovery opportunities” for its clients. The company, based in Dallas, Texas, claims its business tax services “resulted in $2.5 billion in tax savings for our premier global clients.” The appeals cost Paulding over $1.2 million in property taxes last year, according to Stokes’ data.
“As the real estate industry evolves, so does the expansion of large corporations and the global companies they represent taking advantage of loopholes which encourage volumes of frivolous annual appeals,” Stokes says.
That creates a vicious cycle, he adds. “This [Georgia appeals] law shifts the tax burden to local communities, while increasing profit margins of the international corporations. That allows for further acquisitions, appeals – and the continued shift in property tax to our local citizens.”
What can be done?
The controversy over commercial property taxes in Atlanta is nothing new. “We’ve been having this conversation for a number of years – at least since I’ve been in the business, for over 18 years,” says Conley, who was hired as Fulton’s chief appraiser last year.
Bene has been banging the drum about property undervaluations since 2017, sparking an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation in 2018. But state lawmakers have been slow to act. Barrett, the Fulton County commissioner, believes that many politicians are loath to address it for fear of upsetting the special interests that fund campaigns.
“Let’s be frank, there’s a fear from elected leaders that these are people that support their campaigns and will help them get further along in their political careers – and they don’t want to rock that boat,” Barrett says.
Legislation to reform the appeals process for assessments has died in the past, most recently in the 2020 legislative session. House Bill 1038 would have required commercial properties to provide additional information during the appeals process – but it never got out of committee for a vote.
Barrett thinks there’s more of an appetite for reform in the upcoming 2024 session, especially now that legislators are armed with data such as the Georgia Tech study.
Fulton and Paulding are among the counties that successfully pushed for the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia to add the appeals issue for commercial property appeal issue to its 2024 legislative agenda. Among the recommendations in the group’s legislative toolkit are placing restrictions on the three-year assessment freeze and allowing county tax assessors to utilize better data.
But Bene believes that the counties can do plenty to fix the problem, even without reforming the appeals law. That aside, he says, county tax assessors are undervaluing trophy properties.
“We can’t accept this any longer. We can’t accept that when these trophy properties sell, they’re selling for—in many cases—three times what their appraisal [value] is. It’s just wrong. It’s completely unfair to the rest of the taxpayers,” he says.