By Tia Lynn Lecorchick

Over 40 Morgan County residents flooded the Board of Commissioners’ (BOC) June 17 work session to inquire and complain about the recent property value notifications sent out on May 8. The notifications indicated, for many, a severe spike in the value of properties, which in turn will result in a higher property tax bill. Many of the property owners expressed dismay and confusion over the seemingly arbitrary value increases and lack of transparency regarding how these values were determined.  So far, about 160 appeals have been filed with the Morgan County Tax Assessor’s office against the first round of property value notifications. The deadline to appeal the first round of notices is Monday, June 23.

One Morgan County resident, David Griffith, voiced that the method and procedures of property appraisals needs to be more easily and readily accessible to the public. “The information is extremely difficult to discern when you are trying to understand what the assessor is looking at when evaluating your home. There is no way to gather that information on your own. You have to come to the assessor and make an appointment,” explained Griffith. “Unless you are a qualified real estate professional, it’s not an easy thing to do. I think it can become, and should become more transparent. We, as the public, need to know how neighborhood is being evaluated and what exactly our properties are being compared to,” said Griffin. “I just want to know that I am being treated fairly,” he added. Harry Wagner, another protesting property owner and former tax assessor, said he is fighting a 68 percent increase on his property value and threatened legal action if necessary. Wagner challenged Anglin’s appraisal method.

“His number show the same thing if you pick up the Wall Street Journal. He has numbers to indicate trends, but he is short on comparables to do it. Without that, I just don’t think you can justify these increases,” said Wagner. Chuck Anglin, chief appraiser for the county, presented a slide show to explain to the public how the current digest for property values was created. He assured the public that there is a calculated method used when determining property values. “A lot of people don’t understand how this has affected Morgan County,” said Anglin. “I am hoping this presentation will help clarify things a little more.”

Anglin explained that property values are determined by a myriad of factors, including: location, acreage, square-footage, age of home, updated renovations, the amount of finished space in a home, and comparable fair market sales of nearby homes of similar design, size and age.

Anglin reviewed the last six years of real estate history to show how the county is slowly rebounding from the previous years of diving property values. According to Anglin, in 2009, the total residential values of Morgan county peaked at $1.2 billion. Those cumulative values hit its lowest in 2012 at $817 million, and are now climbing upward once again, currently totaling $983 million. Anglin also reported that the values for agricultural properties are on the rise as well. In 2009, the overall values of agricultural properties in Morgan County was $542 million. It dropped to $188 million in 2012, and has currently increased to $213 million for 2014. Anglin also outlined the overall real estate market from 2009 to 2014 to show why Morgan County property values are going up, since the fair market sales are a component when conducting property appraisals. In 2009, 259 fair market value sales were conducted. That number drastically decreased in the following years, hitting an all-time low of just 87 fair market sales in 2013. Anglin pointed out that this year, the county jump backed up to 182 fair market sales, which has contributed to increase of property values. During the same years, as the rate of fair market sales decreased, the rate of foreclosures increased. In 2009, the number of foreclosures was 62. That number spiked to an all-time high in 2011, with 260 foreclosures, dropping back down this year to just 59 foreclosures.

However, attendants were still unclear as to how their respective properties were evaluated, claiming their values were inconsistent with the values of surrounding properties. Some claimed their property values increased by tens of thousands of dollars. Others claimed their property value increased by over $100,000. Nancy Martin, owner of a lake-front property, complained that her property value and surrounding property values, went up between 20 and 30 percent. Steve Huggins, another property owner, said, “My home value is disproportionately higher than anyone else’s in the neighborhood, even though it’s roughly the same age, construction, and about the same size as the other homes. Why would my value be so much higher?”Karla Chandler and Maxie Jones also voiced concerns over the sudden high increases on their properties.“I just want to know how my property could go up by $168,000?” she asked.

“I have worked hard my entire life, never asked for hand outs or special treatment. I do everything a good citizen is supposed to do, but how this kind of thing can happen just puzzles me,” said Jones. BOC Chairman Andy Ainslie encouraged property owners with concerns to file appeals and make appointments with Anglin to find out exactly how their properties were evaluated.Marcus Schuchs, who sits on the board of tax assessors, noted that he approved the current digest that mandated his own property increase by $88,000. “I assure you, we are not exempt from the increases either,” said Schuchs.

While certain property owners are angered and disappointed by the drastic increase in property values, the county believes it is a sign of recovery from the real estate crash its endured for the past few years. “Overall, I think this is a good report and it will  help people understand how all of this works,” said Michael Lamar, county manager. “It is better to have real information rather then just mere speculation…If you were to compare Morgan County globally, our values went down like everybody else’s, but our rebounding has gone up more quickly because of our policy decisions on reevaluations,” said Lamar of how the tax assessors have worked to recover property values.

Lamar also noted that there are over 200 distinct neighborhoods in Morgan County. He suggested the tax assessors work on getting an easily accessible online depiction of how the county is split up, to give the public a better visual of which properties are being compared to each other. “We are beginning to rebound,” said Anglin. “And that does affect property values.”“Morgan County has been through a tough time these past few years,” said Ron Zay, chairman of the Tax Assessors. “But the good news is moving forward, we are starting to rebound.”