Wednesday, March 18, 2009

AJC - Counties try to keep an eye on homestead exemptions

Here's an article from the AJC that addresses the issues I raised on misuse of homestead exemptions. The amount of money that is potentially lost is staggering. Unfortunately it is often the efforts of whistle blowers that return these revenues for use in providing county services. Often times the amount of money misappropriated reaches grand theft proportions, yet few are ever prosecuted.

While the article mentions that the county tax office appreciates the efforts of private citizens who act as "whistle blowers" the county solicitor's office is not quite as grateful - for my efforts I face spending the next sixteen months in jail fulfilling the county's real criminal offense - barking dogs.

My revocation hearing is next Thursday morning in Gwinnett's Recorders Court.

Counties try to keep eye on homestead exemptions

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

More than a few homeowners are overreaching when it comes to property tax breaks. And whether intentional or not, it’s keeping county offices busy.

In 2008, the Gwinnett County Tax Commissioner’s Office removed or denied some 617 current or past filings for homestead exemptions. Of those, seven were rentals whose exemption was pulled in the audit process.

Had all 617 gone through, the county could have lost close to $260,000 in revenue based on the average county homestead exemption of $420. This includes about $240 from the state’s homeowners tax relief grant.
“They don’t in any way represent 617 attempts to beat the system,” said Richard Steele, director of the property tax division of the Gwinnett County Tax Commissioner’s Office. “[They were] denied simply because they were, in fact, honest on the application.”

Homestead exemptions give property owners a break on property taxes for their primary residence. To qualify, a property must be used as a primary residence by the owner and be in the same county in which his or her vehicles are registered. Single or married, you may claim only one homestead exemption.

Like most other metro counties, Steele said, his auditors check applications against vehicle registrations, returned mail and postal records.

Steele said the law only provides penalties if an applicant intends to commit fraud. In such cases, property owners can be charged double the tax originally due. Proving intent, Steele said, is next to impossible.

So is assuring against it.

Each month, Cobb County Tax Commissioner Gail Downing said her office presents a list of properties to the board of assessors that have been discovered to be ineligible for the exemption. Last year, the office removed 222 homestead exemptions. The county’s average homestead exemption is about $500.

“I wish I could say it was infrequent, but it’s not,” she said. “In some cases it’s honestly just a misunderstanding or where they’re not aware that they’re not supposed to have it.”

Downing said she has pursued penalties in several cases. Most of the time, though, she said she gives the property owner 60 days to pay before penalties and interest kick in.

Fulton and DeKalb counties also employ auditing techniques to flag errant filings.

Fulton’s average homestead exemption is $500. Last year, its homestead division removed 16,341 exemptions.

The stakes are higher in DeKalb County. Thanks to the county’s homestead option sales tax, qualified owners receive an average homestead exemption of $1,073. Last year, the county removed 862 homestead exemptions not related to property transfers/ownership changes which are automatically removed.

If an application gets through the checks, auditors have one last tool: tips from neighbors.

“Our auditors get those kind of tips pretty much on a daily basis,” Steele said. “We’re very appreciative of that information.”

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