This is a critical year for metropolitan Atlanta-area taxpayers to be proactive in filing returns of fair value. Failing to do so may leave taxpayers with excessive taxes based on valuations or appraisals performed long before the economic downturn — which are now irrelevant to current market evaluations. Valuations based upon any appraisal or sale before August, 2007 are suspect. The taxing authorities may be basing taxes upon evaluations on vacant properties or which produce far less revenue than anticipated. Owners and advisors anticipating new evaluations in 2009 will be sadly disappointed because many counties will not send out new notices, hoping to maintain existing tax appraisal values, particularly if property owners have not registered an objection to the existing value by filing a new return indicating a lower value. If there is no new notice, the value remains the same, and there is nothing from which to appeal.

In Georgia, taxpayers file returns of fair market value (as of January 1) by either March 1 or April 1, depending upon the county of the location of the property. In most counties, returns must be received by the taxing authority by the deadline or postmarked by the US Postal Service (NO private meter stamps) by the deadline. Check with each county if postmarks are permitted. This is not a year where appeal rights will be nearly as important as returns, because most property values may well not be changed by the assessors.

If no return is filed for 2009, it is as if the same property is returned as the preceding year and at its previous final evaluation. Those who disagree with last year’s evaluation and do not file returns will lose their appeal rights, a devastating mistake and major trap for taxpayers who expect a notice from which they can appeal. Values merely carry forward from year to year unless a return is filed in a timely manner, which is much earlier than the tax notices regarding any changes are mailed. Literally hundreds if not thousands of taxpayers will experience major surprises when they receive no notices but later do receive tax bills based upon the 2008 evaluation (and possibly at an even higher millage rate) and have no recourse.

If a value were established by an appeal, the value carries forward for the next two years, unless it is returned at a different value or if changes to the property affect its value. If the final value in an appeal is satisfactory for the next year, no return should be filed; however, continued scrutiny and vigilance are required in a period of declining values.

Atlanta and other Georgia communities had dramatic upward revisions in property assessment valuations for commercial and industrial properties in 2008 despite major reductions in actual real estate values. Landowners and their representatives should reevaluate their properties’ fair market values and act timely to assert and to establish those values with the taxing authorities, addressing problems early with capable advisors. Advisors should be proactive in informing and working with their clients early and aggressively. Unfairly high taxes can be the death knell for properties, resulting in lower values, forced sales and even foreclosure because of the inability to service the taxes, insurance based on the high values, and debt service where refinancing or restructuring is difficult if not impossible. The need for early action and professional involvement in the first month or two of the new year is essential for the property owner to have the best chance to establish a fair, current, sustainable and reasonable value.