Tax appraisals hot topic in governor’s race

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Several candidates in the 2006 race for governor have made a hot-button issue out of property assessment practices, but many Shelby County officials say the process is just fine the way it is.

If a change was to occur, the Shelby County School System would be the biggest loser in terms of missed revenue opportunity, officials said.

&8220;It would definitely affect us,&8221; said Evan Major, superintendent of Shelby County Schools, which draws some two-thirds of the revenue collected on property taxes for its budget.

Property used to be assessed once every four years for tax purposes until Gov. Bob Riley’s office ordered annual assessments near the beginning of his administration three years ago.

That change has meant increased revenue from property taxes in Shelby County, which is averaging a six to seven percent annual increase in assessment rates, according to county finance manager Butch Burbage.

In recent weeks, the annual assessment practices set in motion by the Riley administration have been under the scrutiny of gubernatorial hopefuls Roy Moore, Don Siegelman and Lucy Baxley.

&8220;The law requires that we do (assessments) every year,&8221; said Jeff Emerson, a spokesperson for Riley. &8220;Previous administrations didn’t enforce the law.&8221;

Emerson said while some candidates have made comments that the governor could change the process on his own, actual change in assessment practices would require an act of the legislature.

&8220;Gov. Riley has said that if the legislature passed that bill, he would sign it,&8221; Emerson said.

But such change would come at the expense of a school system already struggling to keep up with the rapid growth in Shelby County, Major said.

&8220;Waiting every four years for appraisal is only going to compound that situation.&8221;

Aside from missing out on yearly increases in local revenue, Major said the school system also stands to lose out in terms of state monies generated from property taxes.

&8220;The way it would hurt us most there is some of the money we get for building and capital outlay comes from the state ad valorem tax,&8221; he said.

That’s just another bump in the road for a system trying to find ways to fund much-needed schools, Major said.

Helena, Chelsea and Calera have all looked into the idea of passing local taxes to support construction of new schools in those communities, places where new schools are needed, but the school system doesn’t have enough resources to fund construction.

Gary McCombs, assistant superintendent of finance for Shelby County Schools, said an annual approach was also more appealing for financial advisors and underliners of bond issues, which could be a factor when looking to finance new construction.

&8220;Definitely from the standpoint of a governmental entity, it benefits the system to have that revenue coming in on an annual basis, instead of waiting every four years to see the increase,&8221; McCombs said.

But proponents say the average taxpayer also benefits from annual appraisals.

Under the four-year plan, citizens didn’t pay yearly increases but likely noticed a spike in their property taxes every four years when their property was reassessed.

That spike could be as much as 40-50 percent in high growth areas, said Shelby County’s chief appraiser Lisa Wideman.

Since the switch to annual appraisals, the number of appeals heard by the property tax commissioner’s office has decreased significantly, Wideman said.

She attributes the decrease to the fact that people are better able to deal with yearly increases than a larger one every four years that often caught them uprepared.

&8220;I feel like the public may be more comfortable with he annual approach,&8221; Wideman said.

The Shelby County Property Tax Commissioner’s office was responsible for appraising more than 80,000 parcels of property last year and billed out more than $96 million in taxes