Alpharetta’s Lack of Election Coverage

It has been nearly a month since I wrote this article about Alpharetta’s ongoing City Council election. Since that time I have seen no local newspaper coverage of the most important election the City of Alpharetta has had since 2011 when Mayor Belle Isle and I were elected.

But six years ago when we ran for office both local papers ran profiles of every candidate within two weeks and there were forums and debates. On September 7th of 2011 the Alpharetta Revue ran a profile of some unknown candidate named Jim Gilvin on September 7th of that year. You can still read that article here but only if you promise to forgive the 20 year old real estate picture accompanying it.

And as I go back and read that profile now I am surprised to see how similar the current election is to that one.

Traffic and high density development still seem to be the most critical issues. One of the current candidates promises to provide a much needed voice for the residents of Alpharetta and the commercial property owners, builders and developers are once again displaying giant signs for the other candidate.

Easterling Hodge E Andrews

Yet even though so many of the issues are still the same the local media coverage has been much different. Actually it has been nonexistent.

There hasn’t even been a newspaper article about the city council race except for the article announcing there was one. Alpharetta is halfway through its most important election in six years and there has been no profile of the candidates.

Not one local reporter has thought to ask Councilman Kennedy why he didn’t let his constituents know he wasn’t running for reelection until it was too late for other candidates to qualify. Not a single media outlet has bothered to ask candidate Ben Easterling what prompted him to qualify as a candidate for Councilman Kennedy’s seat on the first morning of qualifying when no one in the public had any idea Councilman Kennedy wasn’t running.

I know I’m just an elected official who blogs on the side but it certainly seems like those are the kinds of things local newspapers should do to inform their readers. At least they used to.

 

Alpharetta Has a Choice to Make

Most people who live in Alpharetta don’t realize they have an important decision to make about the future of our city on November 7th. That is when the election to replace Councilman Mike Kennedy will be held.

For the last six years Councilman Kennedy has served as Mayor Belle Isle’s appointed liaison to oversee Alpharetta’s community development department. A lot has changed in those six years.

This will be only the second time over those six years that Alpharetta voters have even had a choice to make. And if you think your vote won’t matter this November I’d like to remind you that the margin of victory in that election four years ago was decided by 7 votes!

Look, I get it. Most people are sick of politics. I’m one of them.

But six years ago I set aside my distaste for politics and politicians because I care about this community and wanted to give my friends and neighbors a choice about our future. So I very much appreciate the two candidates who are now making that same sacrifice on our behalf.

Of the 63,000 people who live in Alpharetta Ben Burnett and Ben Easterling were the only two people willing to step up and give the the rest of us a choice about our future. I am grateful. We all should be.

I have also had the privilege of getting to know both candidates over the past few years and in my opinion they are both good men. I believe they are both men of faith who are good husbands, fathers and public servants.

I first met Ben Burnett during a contentious zoning issue which affected his neighborhood on Mayfield Road. Ben was an active advocate for his neighbors and after the issue was resolved he continued to stay in touch. Eventually Mr. Burnett expressed a desire to serve his community in an official capacity so I took Mr. Burnett up on his offer by appointing him to Alpharetta’s recreation and park commission in 2014.

Ben Burnett served our city well on the recreation commission and when a position as an alternate opened up on the planning commission I nominated him to fill the vacancy based on his knowledge of zoning processes. Mayor Belle Isle and the rest of city council then unanimously supported Mr. Burnett’s appointment to the planning commission where he helped review zoning applications.

The other candidate running for Alpharetta city council is named Ben Easterling. I first met Ben Easterling in 2012 when I was appointed as the city council liaison to our recreation and parks department. At the time Mr. Easterling was Councilman Chris Owens’ appointee to the recreation commission and he served in that capacity until assuming the chairman’s role later that year. Ben Easterling has also served the city of Alpharetta well with his positions on the recreation commission.

The people of Alpharetta are very fortunate to have two such qualified candidates willing to run for city council this year. And the timing is critical. Alpharetta is at a crossroads.

In the wake of the great recession there has been a tremendous amount of growth and development in a few short years. And what we see being built now is just the beginning. Many of the developments already approved have yet to break ground.

Which means that whoever is elected on November 7th will be responsible for helping to manage all of that growth while also helping to set the course for future decisions. And at such a pivotal moment we are fortunate two candidates have stepped forward to give voters a choice.

Alpharetta now has a choice to make thanks to Ben Burnett and Ben Easterling.

 

 

 

Healing the Heart of Democracy

For years I have been concerned about the state of our nation and what it means for the future we will leave to our children. That concern was the main reason I ran for public office.

By running for city council I saw an opportunity to make a difference, however slight. And by offering to serve my community on a local level I hoped to positively impact the future for my children.

The beauty of serving at a local level is that most of the issues have an immediate impact the community we call home. National politics usually dominate network newscasts but it is the local decisions about roads, parks and zoning applications that have the greatest impact on a city. So I try to stay focused on local issues that I can influence and generally refrain from writing about national issues here unless they have a direct impact on Alpharetta.

One national issue that has weighed heavily in my mind lately though is how politically divided our nation has become. Rather than a nation of “We The People” it seems like too many Americans are caught up in “Us versus Them” or “Good versus Evil”. The political divide has gotten worse over my lifetime and lately it seems that divisiveness is resulting in violence.

Last year as I began reflecting on how our nation got to this point I came across a book titled Healing the Heart of Democracy written by Parker J. Palmer. It provides some great insight into how our nation’s political discourse has reached such a troubling point and even though it was written in 2011 it seems especially relevant after the 2016 presidential election and thee ensuing turmoil.

Healing the Heart of Democracy

The author of Healing has a very different political perspective than mine and I nearly stopped reading it at one point because it was challenging to read so many views I disagreed with. But fortunately Mr. Palmer’s ability to identify the root of many problems facing our nation kept me reading even when I didn’t agree with his proposed solutions.

Looking back it became clear that if I couldn’t bear reading the book because I didn’t always agree with Dr. Palmer then I wasn’t ready to hear his message any way. Below is a selection from the book’s introduction that I found particularly relevant:

But these days, “We the People” have a great deal of trouble talking across our lines of difference about the common good—so much trouble that many of us doubt the very concept of a “common good.” Deformed by a divisive political culture, we’re less inclined to differ with each other honestly than to demonize each other mercilessly. That’s why it’s so seductive to gather with folks who share our view of what’s wrong and do little more than complain about all those “wrongdoers” who aren’t in the room.

If we want to “create a politics worthy of the human spirit,” we must find ways to bridge our differences, whether they are defined by age, gender, class, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or political ideology. Then we must seek patches of common ground on the issues we care most about. This is more than a feel-good exercise. If we cannot reach a rough consensus on what most of us want, we have no way to hold our elected officials accountable to the will of the people.

Every time we fail to bridge our differences, we succumb to the divide-and-conquer tactics so skillfully deployed by individuals and institutions whose objective is to take us out of the political equation. Question: Why are billions of dollars spent annually on cable TV performances of political “infotainment” that are all heat and no light? On disseminating disinformation and agitprop online? On PACs that can produce and purchase air time for fact-free attack ads that offer no solutions? Answer: To make “We the People” so fearful and suspicious of each other that we will become even more divided and politically impotent.

There is a lot of wisdom in those three paragraphs. Especially to someone who has been actively involved in local politics for the past few years.

If you are as concerned about the divisive nature of American politics and the effect it is having on your friends, family and community I encourage you to read Healing the Heart of Democracy by Parker J. Palmer. The book not only provides clarity to some of the core issues facing America but also offers ways suggestions for ways we can act locally to do something about it.

I try to keep an extra copy on hand if you would like to borrow one or you can order it here on Amazon for less than $15.

 

 

Alpharetta Six Years Later: 100,000 Cars & 1235 Apartments

On June 19th  Mayor Belle Isle and the Alpharetta City Council approved the seventh high density mixed use zoning case to come before us since I was elected in 2011. The vote Monday night was 4-2 in favor of the project with Councilman Jason Binder joining me to vote against it.

northwinds site 2

That latest project was called Northwinds Summit and will contain 140 apartments, 32 condos, 1.2 million square feet of office space, 30,000 square feet of retail and a 140 room hotel. It is projected to add more than 14,000 cars a day to the intersection of GA 400 and Haynes Bridge Road. Northwinds will be right across the street from the Tech 360 project approved last month which will add another 13,000 cars. Those projects will now draw 27,000 more cars a day to what was already one of the busiest intersections in Alpharetta.

And while 27,000 more cars a day may seem like a lot it is only a fraction of the traffic residents should expect from projects approved over the past six years. The seven urban mixed use projects approved alone are projected to add more than 100,000 cars a day to our already congested roadways.

But even that number doesn’t include the thousands of cars coming from all the acreage recently clear cut on Old Milton Parkway. Or the cars coming soon from property cleared on Kimball Bridge Road. Or cars coming from more developments approved on Webb Bridge Road. Or the houses, town houses and condos being built on Mayfield Road, Rucker Road, Canton Street, Academy Street and nearly every other congested corridor in the city.

City Center 4-3-2017

When I ran for office in 2011 there were three candidates running for Mayor and six candidates running for three city council positions. For ten weeks the nine of us spent every possible moment hosting events, knocking on doors and attending debates to explain why the people of Alpharetta should vote for us. The one issue that all nine candidates acknowledged as a top priority for everyone was Alpharetta’s traffic.

Every candidate promised we were going to do something about the horrific traffic that has plagued this city for years. Yet here we are six years later and city council has approved developments that will add well over 100,000 cars a day while we are still years away from traffic improvements that could ease congestion.

Don’t get me wrong.  Development is not bad and I am not anti-growth.

I am proud of much that our mayor and council have accomplished over the past six years. Cooperation between the City of Alpharetta, our business community and the commercial property owners who have invested hundreds of millions of dollars help make Alpharetta a shining star in the state of Georgia.

But when I promised to do something about traffic I was committed to supporting a pace and scale of development that our infrastructure could support. Many of my fellow candidates promised the same thing.

Rush hour in Alpharetta is already frustrating and over the next five years it is going to get worse before it gets better. Construction is about to begin along every major roadway in the city.  Critical corridors like Rucker Road and McGinnis Ferry may need to be closed for a while as bridges and roundabouts are constructed. All of this will happen just as new developments start to add tens of thousands of cars to our traffic. You can find more detailed information about the planned projects at this link.

City projects

The long term affects of that congestion along with the impact such rapid growth will have on schools and crime rates are going to be immense. I am concerned that it is just too much too fast. And I know a lot of other Alpharetta residents are concerned too because they ask me about it everywhere I go.

People ask me what’s going to be built on the latest piece of land where the trees are suddenly gone. People ask me why the city didn’t do something about traffic before approving so many developments. People ask me why I’m usually the only council member voting against some of the mixed use apartment projects.

Then people ask me the one question I just can’t answer,”We’ve lost so many trees and traffic just keeps getting worse, why does the city keep approving all of this?” All I can say to that is,”I don’t know.”

 

 

 

Fulton County Commissioners Freeze Tax Assessments

Last Wednesday the Fulton County Board of Commissioners voted to freeze the county’s tax assessments at last year’s level with exceptions for newly constructed buildings and improvements made in 2016. This will be a disruptive process for every municipality and school system who relies on those assessments for budgeting purposes but it was the right thing to do given the bad situation. I appreciate the Fulton County Commissioners doing the right thing for our residents and would specifically like to than Chairman John Eaves and Vice Chairman Bob Ellis for their leadership on this matter.

The financial burden for an uneven and unreliable Fulton County tax assessment process will now fall on the governments and schools systems who rely on property taxes to pay employees and provide services. The City of Alpharetta will have to do a little shuffling of priorities based on the lower tax digest but we are financially sound and there shouldn’t be any noticeable impact to our residents.

That may not be the case for some other cities and school systems. A representative from Atlanta Public Schools specifically expressed concern that a frozen digest would be an undue burden on them because their budget already anticipated the projected growth of 3% in their tax digest.

If anything good is to come from this year’s tax assessment mess it will hopefully be that state legislators and Fulton County Commissioners will work closely with the affected municipalities and school systems to make sure this never happens again. We shall see.

Below is the Fulton County press release explaining last week’s decision  in greater detail.

During its June 21 meeting, the Fulton County Board of Commissioners voted to correct the 2017 Tax Digest, as provided by law.

Through a unanimous vote, the Board of Commissioners directed the Tax Assessors to utilize the 2016 digest as a base year, making modifications to capture new parcels added since 2016 and new construction and improvements completed as of January 1, 2017. The Assessors were also directed to reinstate 299(c) exemptions removed in error and add the 2017 values on commercial properties whose valuations were the result of an intensive assessment process conducted in 2016.

The Board’s action came after hearing concerns expressed by thousands of residents. Since notices were issued in late May, more than a thousand Fulton County residents attended a series of town hall meetings. Many others reached out to the Board of Commissioners through emails, phone calls and letters to express their concerns with the process.

The Board of Commissioners learned of numerous issues with the 2017 digest, including a high number of increases above 50%, “unfreezing” of properties whose values were frozen through appeal, inconsistent application of the CPI freeze, and other issues.

The corrective resolution adopted by the Board was sponsored by Chairman John H. Eaves, Vice Chairman Bob Ellis and Commissioner Liz Hausmann.

“Today’s vote was not just a monetary or fiscal matter, it was a moral issue,” said Chairman John H. Eaves. “Our vote not only corrects the 2017 tax digest, it in effect sets property assessments at 2016 levels to bring emergency and immediate relief to our taxpayers which they demanded and deserve.”

“Thanks to everyone who recognized the urgency of this issue and worked to come up with a solution,” said Vice Chairman Bob Ellis. “The action by the Board today is the best and most appropriate action we can take to allow the necessary time to correct numerous errors in individual assessments, work towards changes to our property tax system and eliminate the severe and unjust impact that inaction would have caused on the lives of so many of our Citizens.”

Commissioner Liz Hausmann said, “This action serves to protect Fulton County property owners from an undue high tax burden this year, and allow the Georgia legislature to work on a simpler, fairer system in the next legislative session.”

All Fulton County property owners will receive updated assessment notices once the corrections are completed.

The Board of Commissioners sought to balance the need to find a solution for 2017 assessments while allowing taxing jurisdictions, including cities and school boards, to capture the value of new construction in their communities. Those agencies will be notified of the changes. Steps will be taken to minimize impact on other taxing agencies.

During a meeting on Monday, June 19, 2017, with the Fulton County Legislative Delegation, the Georgia Senate State, and Local Government Operations Committee, members of the Board of Commissioners expressed their plans to work with the Georgia General Assembly during the 2018 Legislative Session to explore property tax relief measures and improvements to the tax assessment process.

 

2017 Fulton County Property Tax Assessment Increase Update

A few days ago I wrote this article about this Fulton County’s recent property tax assessments after receiving numerous calls and messages from neighbors with questions or complaints. As I mentioned in the previous article city officials like myself have absolutely no control over the assessments so our only options are to leverage whatever political influence we may have to encourage a reasonable resolution by those who do have control of the situation and adjust our local tax rate as we see fit based on the decision handed down.

With that in mind I have had several conversations with elected officials at the state and county level over the past few days and would like to provide an update. Every elected official I have spoken to is upset with the way the tax assessment process has been handled and I have been encouraged by the attention given to this urgent matter. One way or another local governments need to know our tax base as soon as possible. The city of Alpharetta will begin our current budget ends in less than three weeks and it is absolutely absurd that we still don’t know what our property tax base will be to plan for the next year.

Fulton County Vice Chairman Bob Ellis who represents Fulton’s 2nd District and lives in Milton has been at the forefront of trying to resolve this convoluted problem. Vice Chair Ellis held a public meeting last Thursday to hear from residents. This report from 11 Alive titled “Tempers Erupt in Meeting Halls over Fulton County Tax Bills” covered the meeting. A lot of upset taxpayers took advantage of the opportunity to voice their concerns and when I spoke to Bob on Friday he was sincerely glad to given them the opportunity. You may watch the full video of the town hall meeting here.

Vice Chair Ellis has also called upon state legislators to intervene if the problems cannot be successfully resolved at the local level. I am personally concerned about further state involvement in local governance because some of the existing assessment problems are unintended consequences of previous legislation. For example, state law currently requires governments to value residential properties between 90 and 110 percent of fair market value so Fulton County can be fined $1 million if this years’ assessments don’t reflect those values regardless of the consequences. But despite reservations about further state involvement I do appreciate Bob’s insistence that the situation must be remedied one way or another.

Fulton County Chairman John Eaves has also been vocal about the tax assessment problem. Last week Chairman Eaves joined Vice Chair Ellis in calling for the Board of Assessors to rescind the 2017 property tax assessments. Chairman Eaves has also been vocal in calling for a freeze on tax assessments until the issues can be resolved:

“To our homeowners, this is a financial emergency,” Eaves said. “A freeze would mean that most would pay the same in taxes, so long as city hall and school board millage rates were not increased in the past year.”

The Fulton County Board of Assessors was scheduled to vote on the requested tax freeze last week but postponed the vote until this Thursday. However the chief tax appraiser says he won’t recommend rescinding the assessments even at that time.

State Senator John Albers from Roswell who calls the assessment situation a “fiasco” is following the matter closely in case state intervention is required has also expressed concerns that the tax board meeting should be conducted in a more convenient forum for his constituents.

One way or the other it is imperative that the Tax Board resolve the situation immediately so that local governments can make informed decisions on tax millage rates and budgets for next year. This is unacceptable.

Before the tax board’s decision scheduled this week Fulton County Commissioner Liz Hausmann who represents District 1 and lives in Johns Creek will also hold one more public meeting to discuss the matter this Wednesday night, June 14, at Johns Creek High School at 7:00 p.m. I encourage those of you who have questions or comments to please attend the meeting and be heard.

Hausmann meeting copy

 

2017 Fulton County Property Tax Assessments

Yesterday I received my 2017 Fulton County Property Tax Assessment in the mail the same way thousands of my neighbors and constituents did. And within minutes of reading my own assessment I started receiving texts from several of those neighbors who were upset or had questions about their bills.

For the record my 2017 estimated property tax bill is more than $2100 higher than my 2016 tax bill. The new total is just over $7400 with roughly $1300 (18%) going to the City of Alpharetta, $2000 going to Fulton County (27%) and $4100 (55%) going to the Fulton County School system.

So I understand why many people were surprised and some were upset when they got their new tax assessments this week. I certainly didn’t like finding out I may have to pay almost $200 a month more in taxes this year either. However as a real estate agent with a healthy knowledge of property values in our area I am comfortable with the assessed value assigned to my home by the Fulton County tax assessor. That hasn’t always been the case though.

I bought my home in 2003. It was during a real estate downturn and my purchase price was substantially below the tax assessment for that year. I filed an appeal based on the lower actual sale price and as I recall it was eventually lowered to reflect the recent sale.

By 2008 my assessment had increased substantially to reflect the market and then the real estate market plummeted so my tax assessment was once again well above the true market value. I filed an unsuccessful appeal based on the prevailing market conditions but it took a couple of years before the assessment was eventually reduced to reflect the true market value.

Of course by the time my assessment was reduced the market had started recovering and I believe my tax assessment was substantially lower than market value for several years afterward. As you might expect I did not appeal for higher assessments when I felt the assessment was too low.

In my experience the assessments weren’t always what I considered to be the prevailing market value but the fluctuations seemed to average out about right over time. Generally that is the case because assessments tend to be a lagging indicator of property values as they fluctuate in both directions because it usually takes a few years for an assessor to adjust every parcel in a county with nearly a million residents.

So if you feel your property tax assessment is too high you may be right. It should eventually even out over time but if you are certain the assessor has made an error in your case there is an appeal process available to you.

I suggest that anyone concerned about the amount of their tax assessment start by checking one of the publicly available online tools to estimate their market value based on recent sales. Zillow has a reasonably good valuation tool at www.zillow.com/find-your-home/ but there are many others too. You can also ask a local real estate agent if you know one who might be willing to assist you.

No online estimate is a guarantee of a successful tax assessment appeal but it could help. On the other hand if you discover that other estimates are similar to the tax assessor’s valuation it may be hard to support your appeal. Either way you have 45 days from the date of your assessment to file an appeal.

The official date of my assessment was May 19, 2017. As a result my deadline to file a written appeal is July 3, 2017. Check your assessment notice to verify the date if you are considering an appeal.

You can find a printable version of the form for filing a tax assessment appeal is available at bit.ly/taxassessmentappealform. For additional information you can also check the state Department of Revenue website here: https://dor.georgia.gov/property-tax-real-and-personal-property

An alternative would be to hire a business that offers to handle your tax assessment appeal for a fee. I have never used such a service and have heard differing opinions on their value but it may be worth exploring for those of you who feel an inaccurate assessment could cost you a great deal of money.

Please understand that there is absolutely nothing I or anybody else with the City of Alpharetta can do about your assessment but if you have any questions about the process please let me know and I will do my best to get you a straight answer.