Tax breaks for farmers is a notion which draws widespread support.
Ten years ago some 275 property owners in Upson County signed up for a new law which cut property taxes if the land was being used for agricultural purposes - and if the landowner refrained from subdividing and selling the land for a decade.
That decade has passed and it's time for those landowners to reapply for the tax break and re-pledge to use the land for agricultural purposes.
But this time, for some 50 of those landowners, the Upson County Board of Tax Assessors had another idea. The board denied the re-applications of those who had less than 50 acres with a home on that property. The applications from property owners with larger tracts and no homes on site were approved.
The re-application denials came despite the fact staff in the Upson County Tax Assessors Office recommended approval of the applications.
Why the denials?
That's not clear. The letter sent to landowners announcing the denial gave no reason. Assessors said this week they needed more information. Property owners said it was the assessors board - Chairman Ted McKissick and members Gaines Wilson and James Johnson - inability to understand the law which grants the tax break known as a "conservation easement."
For the second month the Board of Assessors has heard the appeals of property owners and for the second month the board has unanimously approved every appeal.
To some, that unanimous approval of every appeal illustrates the board was arbitrary in its initial action to deny some property owners the right to claim conservation use exemptions.
Conservation Use is allowed by Georgia law. It applies to property used for an agriculture purpose - growing crops, raising cattle, growing timber. If the owner enters into a covenent agreeing to refrain from selling or subdividing the land, the owner can qualify for a substantial tax break.
For the Upson County landowners appealing to the Board of Assessors this month, the conservation use clause is a significant money-saving benefit which helps offset the inherent risk of farming. The initial denial of that benefit angered some of the property owners.
"The biggest complaint I have is there is no explanation as to why we were denied," said Susan Harper who appealed on behalf of the property she and her husband James own. Harper said little had changed since her first application a decade ago. She produced numerous documents showing she and her husband raise cows, grow hay and are involved in other agri-business on their acreage.
"I think it is very poor judgement on the Board of Assessors' part to have us get off work to justify something your employees, who are in the field every day, have already recommended," Harper said.
That sentiment was repeatedly expressed during the July 22 meeting. Reports indicate property owners were even more critical of the assessors during a July 8 meeting in which appeals were heard. All appelas at both meetings were approved unanimously.
Upson County Commissioner Joel Pitts attended both meetings and this week he told the Assessors' Board he was "disappointed" with their handling of the conservation use re-applications.
The members of the Board of Assessors told Pitts, and the complaining property owners, they were doing their job by asking questions.
"What I have seen here is not very pleasing," Pitts told the three-member assessors board. "This should be a renewal process, not an initial application process ... Some grave mistakes have been made by this assessors board. You folks have placed the county in a position for litigation."
Pitts said those property owners who were wrongly denied the conservation use designation and haven't appealed that denial are being deprived of their legal rights.
McKissick said no rights are being deprived since every property owner has the right to appeal. However, Pitts said the unfairness occurred because the re-applications were denied without just cause - and despite the recommendation of the field appraisers.
"Every denial that was appealed has been approved," Pitts said. "I don't understand what the procedure is, fellows. It's not fair to the folks who have have not appealed, but have a right to the conservation use beneift. Denying these reapplications with no reason was wrong and arbitrary."
Pitts praised the appraisal staff of the Upson County Tax Assessors Office, and he criticized the Board of Assessors for not following the appraisers recommendations. He described the actions of the assessors board as "prime example of unprofessionalism as you systematically and with intent deny the citizens of Upson County their rights. How many who were wrongly denied have not appealed?"
Board Chairman Ted McKissick told Pitts is seemed as though Pitts favors a "rubber stamp" process from the board. "You think we shouldn't question anything?" he asked. McKissick noted nothing in the law prohibited members of the tax assessors board from looking closely at circumstances which affect the taxable value of property.
Assessor board member Gaines Wilson said with more than 15,000 tracts of land in Upson County, it was inappropriate to criticize the board of assessors for taking a closer look at less than 50 and requiring additional information.