The Liberty County Board of Commissioners on Thursday will hear four ad valorem tax-refund requests, the first of such hearings in about two years.
During its February mid-month meeting, attorney Kelly Davis primed the board on the law that governs ad valorem tax refunds and said the cases are not clear-cut.
Liberty County Board of Assessors Chief Appraiser Glenda Roberts spoke recently about the scenarios, and she said the situations do not meet strict legal guidelines for refunds. In each case, the board of assessors recommends no refund.
“I feel that it would be setting a precedent for other property owners of the county,” Roberts said. “Because to send a message that ‘You don’t have to follow the rules, but you still get a refund,’ is not a good message.”
Under the Official Code of Georgia Annotated 48-5-380, “a taxpayer is entitled to a refund of tax payments determined to have been erroneously or illegally assessed and collected from the taxpayer.”
To be eligible for an ad valorem tax refund, a claim must be filed within three years of the tax payment, and the taxes must have been paid.
Further, “a refund action is limited in nature and reserved for claims of factual or legal errors that have resulted in erroneous or illegal taxation,” the code section reads.
Property owners have 45 days from the time they receive their assessments to appeal the property. After 45 days, the right to appeal is forfeited for the current tax year.
“Generally, a person goes to a tax commissioner’s office to initially make the request for a refund for various reasons: my address is wrong, or I never got the bill, or after the time frame to appeal has expired, this is wrong, or my value is wrong — whatever the case may be,” Roberts said.
In the four situations to be heard by the board of commissioners, Roberts asserted there are no true errors that would make them refund-eligible.
“The board of assessors, they’re not unsympathetic. But obviously, we have to follow state guidelines and rules and regulations, and unfortunately that means sometimes not granting a citizens’ request based on the fact if you’ve not met the rules or the guidelines… ,” Roberts added. “To me, that’s the only way to be fair to everyone.”
County Administrator Joey Brown said Tuesday that the petitioner will be given 10 minutes to make a presentation, the board of assessors and tax commissioner each will receive 10 minutes, and there will be 10 minutes available for questions.
“No decisions will be made that day,” Brown added. “The board has 365 days to render decisions from the date the petition was filed.”
According to copies of the tax-refund requests, property owner Debra Dykes says her property was assessed too high. She is seeking a refund of $1,375 from 2009 and $1,495 from 2010.
“She missed her appeal period, plain and simple,” Roberts said. “No gray areas about it.”
Her request is dated Dec. 14, 2012. In Dykes’ request, the narrative from the assessor explains that buildings on the property were torn down sometime near the end of 2010, but Dykes did not acquire a demolition permit, so the assessors office was not aware that the buildings were razed. The assessors made a correction for Dykes’ 2011 taxes but there was no mention of 2009 or 2010, the narrative said.
Becky Wells Carter
Another appeal comes from Becky Durden, whose tax records are listed in the name Becky Wells Carter. Her appeal is dated Feb. 6, 2013, and she requests $2,373.93 for taxes paid Jan. 29, 2013.
The property is deeded to Becky Wells Carter, but she signed the papers as Becky Durden. Durden is the wife of Atlantic Judicial Circuit District Attorney Tom Durden.
Durden’s basis for refund is that she never received her assessment notice; however, she did not submit a change of request until Jan. 29, 2013, which means her previous address was the one on record with the assessors office for tax billing purposes.
“There’s no way that we can guarantee that all 25,000 parcels of property, it’s going to get to the right address, and that’s the reason that the law makes this provision. If you didn’t receive one, it’s over at Probate Court, you can come into our office,” Roberts said.
The lesson with this case: property owners need to ensure that a valid and current mailing address is on file with the assessors and tax commissioner. Those who own multiple properties can send a letter designating a single address for assessment notices and bills.
Margit Velasco is requesting a refund on behalf of Damini Inc., which is affiliated with the Holiday Inn Express on East Oglethorpe Highway.
She is seeking $42,466.95 for tax years 2003-2012, citing a clerical error.
Roberts said the error occurred — but was corrected — in 2012, when an assessor applied the wrong hotel’s inspection toward the tax bill for the Holiday Inn. However, Roberts said the matter was cleared up before bills were sent out.
Velasco is seeking a refund on the premise that if the wrong hotel was inspected in 2012, it may have been used for inspections from 2005 through 2011. The board of assessors maintains that no taxes were collected based on the error, and Damini Inc. did not appeal within the given period for any of the prior years.
“The error was for a one-month time frame that we discovered, called her, corrected it,” Roberts said. “She got a correct assessment.”
The final tax-refund request to be heard Thursday is the ongoing dispute between the Liberty County Development Authority and Liberty County Tax Commissioner Virgil Jones over personal property that once belong to Bioagra.
The LCDA reportedly acquired the items in 2009 when Bioagra defaulted on its lease, but the transfer of items from a for-profit owner to a government and, therefore, tax-exempt owner was never documented with the board of assessors or the tax commissioner.
Copies of checks from the LCDA to the tax commissioner indicate payments of $93,254.72 for Bioagra ad valorem taxes owed in 2007, 2008 and 2009, and another payment of $46,063.11 for taxes, penalties and interest during tax years 2010 and 2011.
In meetings, the LCDA board has indicated its intention to pay 2007-2009 back-taxes for the company “in good faith” but still contends that it should not be held liable for tax years 2010 and 2011. They are seeking $46,063.11.
“The biggest issue here that my board of assessors has is notification,” Roberts said. “There is absolutely no way of the board of assessors knowing that Bioagra defaulted on their loan and the Liberty County Development Authority is now taking possession of its equipment.”
Davis, who serves as legal counsel for the county, the development authority and the board of assessors, has indicated in meetings with the first two entities that he anticipates a refund would be granted.
Roberts said she has some concerns about whether Davis’ involvement with each of the three entities might constitute a conflict of interest, and she said her department will request funding for its own attorney in the next budget year.
Former Liberty County Commission Chairman John McIver, who also served on the LCDA board while in office, indicated that he also believed the refund would be granted.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if the refund was granted,” Roberts said.