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Posted: March 3, 2010 7:47 p.m.

Next year's county budget could be 10 percent lower

Tax digest expected to decrease by 10 percent or more

Newton County department heads have been instructed to prepare for the possibility of a 10 percent total reduction in their budgets for the next fiscal year.

Department heads had originally been told to expect a 5 to 7 percent decrease, but the latest tax projections painted a bleaker picture. Administrative Assistant John Middleton said he sent the department heads an email Wednesday informing them of the possibility of greater reductions.

Chief Tax Appraiser Tommy Knight presented his tax digest projections to the Board of Commissioners at a Tuesday work session, and said declines were expected in most tax areas.

As of Tuesday, he said overall real estate values were down as much as 10 percent.

“That’s not an astronomical number. In a normal year, we would count on some of that being gained back through motor vehicle valuations; usually those increase every year. Usually, we’ll see an increase in the heavy duty equipment tax every year. This year I don’t think we’re going to see that,” Knight said.

According to information from Tax Commissioner Barbara Dingler, Knight said motor vehicles values could be down by between 10.5 and 11 percent. Last year the total motor vehicle digest was $242 million, but this year that number could be $217 million. That’s less taxable property.

For comparison, from FY2009 to FY2010, the motor vehicle digest increased by nearly $6 million.

Knight said the value of public utility infrastructure, owned by companies like Georgia Power, Atlanta Gas Light and CSX, could be down by 7.5 percent. Normally, those values might increase by around $7.5 million per year, but this year we could see a $7.5 million decrease.

He said it’s impossible at this stage to know where the total tax digest will end up; final numbers won’t be available until the end of May. This year the tax assessor’s office received more than 1,300 tax returns from residential and business owners claiming their property values were lower than their current appraisals. In a typical year, the tax assessor’s office receives fewer 250 tax returns.

Knight said his office is expecting to receive even more returns in the mail from commercial and industrial customers, many of whom have headquarters outside of the state. Returns are due March 1, but they can be postmarked by March 1.

In addition, Knight said only 10 of the county’s industries have reported their Freeport accounts. He said 38 to 40 more industries are still expected to report. Freeport accounts contain about $95 million of value, and depending on how much inventory industries are holding and how much inventory will be exempt from taxes, the county’s tax digest could change substantially.

His office also still has to enter more than 600 homestead exemptions and 35 land conservation accounts, including some new conservation accounts, into their system.

“Those will be significant reductions on the digest net number as well,” Knight said.

“It wouldn’t surprise me to see a 10 to 12 percent downward trend in the digest,” he also commented at one point.

Last year’s tax digest was around $2.76 billion. The county’s budget is $47.5 million, while total ad valorem tax collections were expected to be around $26.7 million of that. Last year, the BOC had to cut the budget by nearly $8.6 million and cut 16.5 county positions.

As far as county property owners are concerned, Knight said by the time his office finishes appraising all of the county’s properties, he expects about 90 percent of properties will have seen a decrease to their values. Newton County, unlike many other counties, reevaluates every parcel of property every year to ensure the most accurate and fair assessment; regardless of whether an owner filed a tax return.

After the tax assessor’s office has reviewed every county parcel and looked at all tax returns, it will send out assessment notices to owners informing them of changes in their value. This is usually done in mid-April.

As in previous years, Knight said the range of declining values differs greatly from neighborhood to neighborhood. He said some areas are experiencing 25 to 30 percent of their homes in foreclosure, while others may only have 2 to 3 percent of their homes foreclosed; that has a big effect. It’s important for residents to compare their value to the values of the homes immediately surrounding them.

As always, Knight emphasized that his role is to fairly assess property; not to worry about ramifications on the county’s budget. He presented the information Tuesday simply to make commissioners aware of what kind of revenue reductions they may face.

Chairman Kathy Morgan thanked Knight and his employees for their fair and thorough tax assessing.

“His department has that task of being fair and honest. They don’t overvalue it too high and they don’t undervalue. It’s a fair and honest representation of what the value is to Newton County at that given time,” she said.

Having said all of that, Knight also informed the commissioners that there is pending legislation in the Georgia Congress, namely Senate Bill 346, that if passed could significantly affect the timetable for finalizing the tax digest.

The commissioners do not support the bill and Morgan said she will write a letter expressing the BOC’s concerns to Sen. John Douglas and Rep. Doug Holt.

For more information continue to check covnews.com.

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