‘Fair forest tax’ gives taxpayers sticker shock in some Georgia counties

Small timber farms like this one are common in heavily forested Wilkes County, where property owners recently got socked with a local tax hike because Georgia voters last year approved a “fair forest tax.” Contributed by Doug Abramson

When Danny Agan skimmed over a long, complicated ballot question last year, his eyes latched onto the word “conservation” that appeared – twice.

“Conservation. That sounds good,” the Wilkes County resident said he recalled thinking. “Puppies and kittens and ‘Let’s save the whales’ and all this. It was worded in such a way that I thought, ‘What can be bad about this?’”

And then earlier this year, the front-to-back newspaper reader came across a legal notice announcing a property tax increase. A few months later, the retired Atlanta Police officer learned what would mean for his 200-acre property: His tax bill was going up about $400.

Wilkes County, which is a heavily forested county and about 40 miles east of Athens, raised taxes this year because of the constitutional amendment that Agan and 58% of local voters backed in 2018. Statewide, 62% of voters approved it. At the time, proponents called it the “fair forest tax.”

Once the changes fully take effect, the county expects to lose about $600,000, hence the tax increase, said County Commission Chairman Sam Moore. The county leader says he expects other counties to feel the effects eventually, if they don’t already.

“I don’t think everybody understands what’s really happened to them,” Moore said. “And we may be the ones who don’t understand it, but when my tax commissioner tells me I’m losing money and this is what it’s going to take to make it up, that’s what we do.”

To Agan, the end result made it feel more like a tax shift than a tax break for the forestry industry.

“When it comes down to it, they are going to stick to the person that it’s easiest to stick it too,” he said.

Danny Agan is shown here with this dog, Tazzie, enjoying the “country life.” Contributed

Proponents of the changes, like the Georgia Forestry Association, argue that last year’s revision had more to do with fixing a decade-old mistake than it did handing out a tax break.

The issue really goes back a decade, when the state essentially froze land values where they were in 2008, when the law first passed creating a conservation program that rewards forest landowners for their participation with a tax perk. As a result, Wilkes County was among the counties where values were locked in artificially high.

Last year’s changes required counties to use updated land values, and it laid out a plan for the state to gradually reduce reimbursements paid to counties for the tax revenue lost through the conservation program.

William Gaston, spokesman for the state Department of Revenue, said the law was changed “to more accurately compensate counties for their actual tax losses for forest lands in protected covenants.”

Wilkes County officials acknowledge they were being overpaid because of when they had happened to reevaluate their forestland at the time of the original law. And they are likely not alone.

Statewide, there are nearly two dozen counties that were being “overpaid” by at least $200,000, according to the Georgia Forestry Association.

The association’s president, Andres Villegas, said the constitutional amendment “corrected a flaw” in the forestland conservation program’s formula for determining the state’s reimbursement to locals that overpaid some, like Wilkes County, and underpaid others, like Hancock County.

“The reduction in revenue experienced by Wilkes County does not impact how forest landowners in the county are taxed, rather, it provides a fair reimbursement to counties like Hancock,” he said in a statement.

Rep. Gerald Greene, a Republican from Cuthbert and whose district is blanketed in trees, said it is unclear right now how the changes will affect the counties in his district.

“I’ve raised that question at the Legislature,” Greene said, referring to the possible revenue losses. “And of course the words that I got from the Legislature and the Department of Revenue was that some should not have been getting that much and that it’s a balancing thing.

“But whose mistake is that, you know?” Greene said.