IT'S DECISION TIME
"Georgia taxpayers risk losing arbitration rights in tax appeals."
Although the Georgia General Assembly enacted statutory provisions governing property tax arbitration procedures in 2009, counties file motions to dismiss tax-payer arbitration requests. An appellate court has yet to weigh in on the issue, but a court decision would help to avoid the repetitious filings of dis-missal motions by counties, and put an end to taxpayers having to continually fight for the right to have their appeals heard in arbitration by a licensed professional appraiser.
- - - - - It is time for an appellate court decision that could well put this matter to rest. - - -
The arbitration statute provides that taxpayers may elect to have their real estate property tax appeal heard by a real property arbitrator — an appraiser as classified by the Georgia Real Estate Commission and the Georgia Real Estate Appraisers Board. After hearing evidence, in the style of baseball arbitration, the arbitrator is required to select either the board of tax assessors’ value or the taxpayer’s value as set forth in the certified appraisal. The law makes the arbitrator’s decision binding and precludes further appeal.
County tax assessors have filed motions to dismiss and briefs in support in more than one county across Georgia contending that the arbitration provisions violate the Georgia Constitution. The assessors seek to have the tax appeal arbitration statutory provisions declared unconstitutional and the arbitration appeals dismissed.
Here are the assessors’ main contentions, and the taxpayers’ arguments against those same points.
Judicial authority: Assessors con-tend the arbitration statute violates provisions of the Georgia Constitution that require that the judicial power of the state shall be vested exclusively in the courts. The assessors’ position is that the arbitration statute creates a separate judicial forum that is required to declare what the law is and apply the law to the case. They contend that in order to determine the fair market value of a property the arbitrator is required to declare and apply Georgia law.
Taxpayers respond that the Georgia Constitution is not violated because the arbitrator is not a court or a judge. The arbitrator’s actions are authorized because the General Assembly can create administrative agencies which are permitted to perform quasi-judicial functions.
Separation of powers: Assessors argue that the statute violates provisions of the Georgia Constitution that provide for separation of powers. The assessors contend that by enacting the arbitration statute, the legislative branch has encroached upon the powers of the judicial branch.
Taxpayers respond that the specified provisions do not apply to local governments, and that there is no prohibition against administrative officers exercising quasi-judicial powers.
Uniform valuation: The assessors further contend that the arbitration statute violates the constitutional requirement that property must be valued uniformly with other property of the same class, because the statute requires that the arbitrator must select either the value set forth by the county tax assessors or the value set forth by the taxpayer. Similarly, the assessors contend that the arbitration statute violates the equal protection clause of the Georgia Constitution because owners of like properties are not provided equal protection of the law.
Taxpayers respond that just because an arbitrator may possibly not agree with the value set by the county board of tax assessors does not mean that the uniformity provisions of the Georgia Constitution are violated.
The Taxpayer Position
The taxpayers contend that the Georgia Superior Courts have no jurisdiction over the matter because the arbitration provisions only require that the Chief Judge be involved for the purpose of selecting an arbitrator if the parties cannot agree, and issuing an order requiring the arbitration to proceed. The taxpayers also contend that the tax assessors have no power to sue and cannot obtain a declaration by the court that the statute is unconstitutional. The taxpayers point out that the assessors have no constitutional rights that have been violated.
At the time of this writing it is unknown which party will prevail, but interesting questions have been raised. Tax arbitration provisions in various forms have existed on and off in Georgia for more than a century, and if the arbitration provisions are declared unconstitutional, taxpayers will be deprived of a statutory format designed to afford relief from unjust valuations through the mechanism of a decision made by a knowledgeable professional, based on information supplied by the county tax assessors and a certified appraisal obtained by the taxpayer.
It is time for an appellate court decision that could well put the matter to rest, and save taxpayers the need to expend time and effort fighting for their statutorily established right to property tax arbitration.