Conservation use designation removes millions from tax digest

SHEILA A. MATHEWS :::

Spalding County Chief Tax Assessor Larry Lilliard has confirmed that members of his staff provided erroneous information regarding the conservation use valuation assessment (CUVA) application process to some property owners.
Commissioner Gwen Flowers-Taylor addressed this issue at the most recent Spalding County Board of Commissioners meeting, stating that she had been contacted by at least two residents who were told in order to receive the CUVA designation, the property must have a “special agricultural zoning.”
“That was putting folks through something they didn’t need to be put through,” she said.
“I accept responsibility for my staff,” Lilliard said. “Like I said, they overstepped their boundaries, they’ve been corrected and it won’t be happening again. I accept full responsibility for my staff and I’m willing to do whatever’s necessary to make amends.”
Asked by Commissioner Bart Miller if 2013 residents who were deterred from completing the application process were eligible for reconsideration, Lilliard explained requests cannot be revisited, but that the property owners are welcome to reapply in the future.
“I can’t go back in and unscramble the eggs. I can only help them in the future. If they want to make the application in the future, I’ll welcome them into my office to do it,” Lilliard said.
Despite these occurrences, records show there are currently 847 properties that have received this designation.
Georgia law states that eligible property owners who meet all requirements may be granted CUVA designation on no more than 2,000 acres of land that is utilized for “good faith production, including, but not limited to subsistence farming or commercial production, from or on the land of agricultural products or timber…”
What does this mean for Spalding County?
The 847 properties that now fall under CUVA designation have a combined taxable fair market value of $183,912,028. This figure includes the value of homes located on CUVA properties, but those, along with two acres are excluded from CUVA designation. Those exclusions total $55,545,202, leaving the combined taxable fair market value of the 847 CUVA properties’ land at $128,366,826.
However, under CUVA designation, those 847 properties are taxed at a value of only $16,968,481, which removes $111,398,345 from the Spalding County tax digest.
The loss of that dollar value from the tax digest translates to $1,773,461 in property taxes not levied against those property owners.
That tax amount is not simply removed from the equation, but rather must be made up by other Spalding County property tax payers.
“It (CUVA) doesn’t take it completely off the digest; it just reduces the taxable value of the property,” said Spalding County Manager William Wilson. “It’s not removed; it’s a lower value and already in the digest.”
Lilliard described the CUVA valuation process as a complicated one that is based on a number of factors established by the federal government.
“The county is mapped by the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture). Soil types were mapped and the maps where digitized,” he said. “Depending on the amount of acreage and the soil type, it’s assigned a productivity rating.”
These values are provided to Spalding County officials each spring, and the CUVA designated properties valuations are set accordingly.
Lilliard said regardless of the CUVA properties fair market value, the CUVA valuation is set between $200-$900 per acre.
Tax officials say they want everyone who may be eligible for CUVA designation to apply for and receive it, but hope property owners will understand that state law mandates an often extensive process for determining eligibility, as the result for non-CUVA designated property owners is an increased property tax bill.
“A person’s property tax is based on the value of their property, so a person whose property is valued at less pays less,” Wilson said. “Their property is valued at less than fair market value because it has the CUVA designation.”
In Spalding County, that comes out to an average of $58.33 annually per property owner.
“Yes, if CUVA wasn’t allowed in the county, the millage rate would be lower, but there’s no way to say how much,” Wilson said. Ω

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