Landlords, heirs, renters hit hard by property tax assessments

To grasp the impact of Muscogee County’s recent countywide property tax reassessment, just consider the case of Jason Hilton.

As the owner of rental properties throughout east and south Columbus, the local businessman saw significant increases in his assessments this year, mostly in Beallwood where the county’s appraisals of his shotgun houses jumped from $20,000 to $220,000, he said. His estimated taxes are $3,300 for each house that he rents for $450 per month.

Hilton has already filed 190 appeals with the Muscogee County Tax Assessors Office. He also has put city officials on notice.

“I’ve been emailing back and forth with my city councilor, Gary Allen,” he said in an interview with the Ledger-Enquirer. “I did tell him if something isn’t resolved fairly quickly we will be notifying our approximately 400 tenants of what’s going on, if they haven’t already heard.

“We will be letting them know that their rents will be going up approximately 50 percent,” he said. “We will also put in the letter to tenants the contact info of their city councilor and mayor, along with the Tax Assessor’s Office, so that their voices can be heard.”

Hilton is not the only property owner frustrated in the wake of the recent reassessment of the county’s nearly 70,000 parcels, which spiked some assessments by as much as 1,000 percent. The project was conducted in conjunction with the Tax Assessor’s Office’s conversion to new software.

Many of those affected are residents in the Midland/Panhandle area who own larger lots, where anything beyond two acres isn’t covered by their homestead exemptions. Others are investors like Hilton who own rental properties throughout the county.

“Beallwood is one of those areas that went up with like 1,000 percent increases,” said Jayne Govar, a real estate agent with Century 21 Premier Real Estate. “And it looks to me like what they did was took all the commercial comparables and put them in there with residential comparables and valued them accordingly. I think that’s what happened over there.”

Bobby Murdock is the owner of Bobby’s Auto Sales on Hamilton Road. He has a vacant lot across from the former Beallwood Elementary School. He tore down a house on the property many years ago and allowed parents to use it as a parking lot. This year, the assessed property value jumped from $2,000 to $120,000, and his estimated taxes increased from $33 to $2,300.

“I’ve got other rental properties and they went way up just as ridiculous,” said Murdock, who is filing seven appeals. “… I just signed a two-year lease with my customers, so I can’t go up on their rent. Now I’ll be paying mortgage on the properties, paying insurance on the properties, and then paying the taxes. I’m going to be losing money, and I bought them as an investment.”

Jackson Turner, a local real estate broker, owns a property at the corner of Henry Avenue and Buena Vista Road. He said he bought it for an employee some years ago, but now the property is vacant. He has continued to pay for water and power because homeless people sometimes use the place for shelter. He said his assessment jumped from $5,000 to $151,000, about a 3,000 percent increase.

Turner said he’s in the process of selling the property and believes the assessment will affect the sale. In total, he’s filing about 10 appeals for that and other properties.

Carolyn Earley has been a local real estate agent in Columbus for 39 years. She and her husband live in south Harris County, but own 10 rental properties in Muscogee County, eight in south Columbus. In Benning Hills, the assessment for one of those properties went up 34 percent and another 55 percent. In Oakland Park, her properties have gone up between 8 and 35 percent as a result of the reassessment.

Earley said a property they donated to the Sheriff’s Department for prison ministry was appraised at $12,000 by an independent appraiser, but the county has it assessed at $35,000.

“These areas have not had any growth,” she said. “… If I could sell these properties at what the city has them assessed for, I would sell them in a heartbeat. But I can’t do it at what they’ve got me assessed for.”

In addition to appealing her own properties, Earley and other real estate agents have been helping other property owners with the appeals process.

“… This is taking so much of my time having to sit down and look at comparables and make phone calls to find out what rentals have sold, and what they were rented for, and how much they sold for,” she said. “… I mean, if you have to go through this, why would you even want to do business in Columbus, Ga.? A lot of investors have rentals in other parts of the state and across the river. One of them said, ‘I’m not going to buy anything else in Columbus. This is ridiculous.’”

On Chattsworth Road in the Midland area, some residents are just trying to hold on to their properties. Many are the heirs of black farmers who willed the land to their children.

J. Aleem Hud said his family is from that area, and he purchased five acres there when he returned to Columbus in the late 1980s to early ’90s. He built a house and still lives on the property.

But the area is on the boundaries of Fort Benning and what’s considered a “blast zone.” He said residents have complained to the city about the lack of street lights and other services over the years. Yet, taxes on many of the properties have jumped significantly.

“Most of the people out here, they are senior citizens, they’re on fixed income and they’re trying to maintain their lives and their properties,” he said. “If you’re on fixed income or something like that, and your taxes are going up, obviously that’s going to impact your life and well-being.

“These aren’t like new families that have moved into the area with wealth and professional jobs,” he said. “These were agrarian and blue-collar workers even when they were working. It almost creates a situation where you’re driving people off of their land, when really they should not have to be worrying about things like that.”

Jesse Turner was born and raised in the area. His parents purchased 3.5 acres on Pope Road in 1971, and left it to him as an inheritance. The house on the property is about 864 square feet with particle board siding.

“It’s a common house built in 1979,” he said. “It has three bedrooms, one bath, a living room, dining room, kitchen, and that’s it. We don’t have sewage and we’re on septic tanks out here. We only have one streetlight.”

Yet, his estimated taxes jumped from about $380 to $1,300 this year, he said. The assessed value went from about $30,000 to $100,000.

He said there’s a new subdivision on Chattsworth Road that has sewage and other services, and he believes the county used those homes as comparables. He’s appealing the assessment.

“I was just caught off guard,” he said. “When they come to you with a high number like that, it’s something that you should’ve been planning for since last year. I’m having to brainstorm to come up with the money by Dec. 1.”

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