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Living on the edge: Dozens of properties in Columbus are split between city, Lowndes County

 

Neal Wagner

 

When local attorney Aubrey Nichols and his wife, Joy, moved into their home off Greenbriar Drive more than 10 years ago, the entirety of their heavily wooded lot laid slightly northeast of the Columbus city limits. 

 

For years, the Nichols passed over an invisible corporate limit line each time they drove the winding streets of their Sweetbriar neighborhood off Bluecutt Road north of Columbus. 

 

For the Nichols, what began as services from the 4-County Electric Power Association, the Lowndes County Sheriff''s Office and the Lowndes County Volunteer Fire Department soon transformed into service from the Columbus Light and Water Department and the city''s police and fire departments. 

 

Though many view Columbus'' city limit line as little more than a metal sign along the side of the area''s busiest highways, it determines the amount of property tax homeowners pay, the source of public safety services and much more. 

 

In 1995, Columbus finalized its last major annexation, pulling in thousands of residences on all sides of the city''s former limits. However, after the annexation was complete, several residential properties were left split between the city and the county. 

 

As a result, the Nichols and about 26 other local homeowners and about 72 total landowners every year must pay two different millage rates on the property surrounding their homes. 

 

"Our house is actually entirely in the city," Aubrey Nichols said. "But a portion of our land out here technically lies in the county. It''s just land, but it is connected to the same plot as our house." 

 

About 3.2 acres of the Nichols'' lot lies in Columbus'' limits, and about 2.3 acres lies in the county, according to land roll records from the Lowndes County tax office. 

 

As the city considers annexing new areas in the next few years, the issue may be one more residents could experience as a new annexation map takes shape in coming weeks. 

 

 

 

''Quite a bit of difference'' in taxes 

 

Although there are relatively few incidents of split lots containing residences around the city''s boundaries, each case presents challenges to Lowndes County Tax Collector and Assessor Greg Andrews.  

 

"They''re just strange. I wish that if the city were to annex soon, they would take care of funny things like this," Andrews said. "It''s complicated for us to figure out how to tax them, and it''s confusing for the homeowners, too." 

 

This year, residents in the county pay about 84 total mills, city residents pay about 137 mills and residents outside city limits but in the Columbus Municipal School District pay about 103 total mills. 

 

The amount of taxes paid varies from homeowner to homeowner based on their property''s assessed value, explained Lowndes County Deputy Tax Assessor Pat Adair. 

 

However, when a single piece of property is split between the city and the county, the property owner must pay separate millage rates depending on where the property lies. Because CL&W follows the Columbus Civil Service Commission''s maps, most split properties fall under CL&W jurisdiction. 

 

"The city can annex all day long, but it doesn''t affect utilities and school district boundaries," said Adair. "The school district lines are actually set by the (U.S.) Department of Justice." 

 

"It''s handled on a case-by-case basis," said CL&W General Manager Todd Gale, noting CL&W customers outside the city limits pay one-and-a-half times the rate paid by city customers. "But more than likely, if they pay city taxes, they get the city rate." 

 

Because most split properties lie on city owned sections of road, nearly all receive city fire and police protection and city services, like garbage pickup. 

 

"The properties that are divided now were split when the city finalized its last annexation in 1995," Adair said. "Personally, I would rather have more land in the county if my property was split, because city residents pay more property tax. 

 

"There is quite a bit of difference between the city and county tax rates, as you can see," Adair added.  

 

 

 

City services ''a good thing'' 

 

Some split property owners seemed to share Adair''s thoughts on the matter, saying they enjoy paying a lower rate on property lying outside city limits. 

 

"The property line actually runs through our front yard," Geraldine Gordon said of her residence off White Oak Drive slightly north of the city. "The taxes are higher for the land inside the city, but I don''t think we even have an entire acre inside the city limits." 

 

Gordon estimated about 1 1/2 acres of her more than 3-acre plot laid outside city limits.  

 

Because a portion of Gordon''s property lies in the city limits, she, like many other split property owners, receives city services. 

 

"We get all city services. We get city garbage pickup, utilities and city police protection," Gordon explained. "And I think that''s a good thing. The city actually picks up garbage more frequently than the county does." 

 

Gerald Massey, who lives on Waverly Ferry Road a few feet west of the city limits, said he found other benefits of owning a split lot. 

 

"My house is technically in the county," Massey said as he gazed upon a green Columbus corporate limit sign near his driveway. Of Massey''s more than one-acre plot, about six-tenths of an acre lay in the county and about four-tenths of an acre lay in the city. 

 

"I like having my house in the county. I can burn something in my backyard without having to get a burn permit," Massey laughed. "But I figure any day the city could just bring us on into the city since we are so close." 

 

Though the existing split lots have been sprinkled around the city for more than 14 years, they soon could be taken entirely into Columbus. 

 

Columbus'' elected officials, city planners and utility personnel are studying and finalizing a plan to bring in thousands of residents on all sides of the city''s current boundaries. 

 

Andrews and Columbus Mayor Robert Smith within the next few weeks will reveal an up-to-date map of areas the city is hoping to annex, Smith said on Monday. 

 

Any land annexed into the city likely will be brought in before the 2010 national census is taken, according to city officials. 

 

 

 

 

 

Millage rates explained 

 

The amount of taxes paid to Columbus or Lowndes County varies based on the type of property owned, the property''s location and a few other factors, according to Lowndes County Deputy Tax Assessor Pat Adair.  

 

This year, property owners in the county pay about 84 total mills, city property owners pay about 137 mills and property owners outside city limits but in the Columbus Municipal School District pay about 103 total mills. 

 

Millage rates are set by several different agencies, including school districts and some emergency response departments, and are used by tax collectors to determine the amount of taxes to be paid on a piece of property. 

 

If a property contains a single-family residence, the tax office multiplies 10 percent of the property''s assessed value by the millage rate applied to the property''s location. 

 

With all other properties, like businesses, undeveloped land and multi-family residences, the tax office multiplies 15 percent of the property''s assessed value by the millage rate applied to the property''s location. 

 

Each mill represents one-thousandth of a dollar, so the assessed value percentages would be multiplied by about 0.137 in the city, about 0.084 in the county and about 0.103 for properties, Adair explained. 

 

For example, if a single-family residential property in Columbus city limits was assessed at $100,000, tax officials would multiply 10 percent of the assessed value, $10,000, by 0.137, bringing the total amount of annual taxes paid on the property to $1,370. 

 

"That is just a basic example of how property taxes work," Adair said. "There are several other factors, like the amount of homestead exemption filed and other things, that also affect what property owners pay.  

 

"It just varies a lot from property to property," Adair added. 

 

 

 

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Reader Comments

Article Comment Thom Geiger commented at 7/26/2009 12:53:00 PM:

I'm waiting to see how the mayor and council explain the recent statements that pulling in 6,000 more people into the city limits won't change ward voting demographics.
I'd like to see someone tell the public who is going to pay for the legal defense of this massive annexation of people, a large number of which do not want to live in the city. The last annexation saw the customers of Columbus Light & Water pay the legal costs of defending the lawsuits that came from that annexation. Who will pay the attorneys this time and just what attorneys stand to make the hundreds of thousands of dollars that will be spent on this plan?
There might be one bright spot in it all, if the mayor and council can drag these people into the city. Maybe those who have been illegally taxed for years, for city school taxes and without the right to vote for a school board member or the council who appoints the board, will be finally be able to have a say in who gets to hold the offices that have treated them as second class citizens for so long.
Mr. Mayor, council members, Mr. Imes, any answrs?

 

Article Comment Slate commented at 7/26/2009 2:47:00 PM:

Columbus needs to annex to provide areas for future growth and development. This is critical due to limited vacant, developable property to accommodate growth within its existing boundaries.

Columbus needs to annex to further secure it's tax base. Areas with desirable ad valorem values, areas with commercial activities that produce sales tax revenues and areas that produce current or future utility revenues.

Columbus needs to annex to cover service costs for county residents using City services. As we've seen more and more residential areas develop within county, these residents use the City's streets and other facilities. Annexation helps cover these costs.

Current City Limits / Sq. Miles

Columbus 21
Starkville 26
Meridian 45
Tupelo 51
Tuscaloosa 56

 

Article Comment Thom Geiger commented at 7/27/2009 12:48:00 AM:

Three reasons, one at a time;
1. "provide areas for future growth and development"-
And which areas on the proposed map do that? Nowhere that I have seen. In fact, my questions are still being ignored about exactly what the city is doing with the 13 sq. miles it took in during the last annexation, including the island.
This reason is a red herring and was also used during the last annexation. Now we see what was and wasn't done with areas annexed then, how long it took to deliver services to those areas and how annexing the Masonic subdivision (in an earlier annexation) really didn't help those residents at all, not one bit. It took them 20 years to get the services they were owed.
2. "further secure it's tax base"-
This means exactly what? It should read GROW its tax base, which is really saying that the city has so mismanaged its existing tax base that it needs more money to deliver service to areas it has now, and to fix the problems it already has on its plate. If a city annexes because it needs more money, it will never have enough, ever. It will need more and more and more. It will be the equivalent of the postal service, eternally raising stamp prices forever. The city needs to come to terms with its problems, stop the denial and start some smart money management practices.
3. "to cover service costs for county residents using City services"-
Another red herring. This argument was one the editorial board at the CD used during the last annexation and it didn't fly then. It only served to stoke animosity and hostility between city residents and people who live outside the city. That tension only served the needs of the CD as it sold more newspapers. Why blame county residents? Why not blame tourists, people from Starkville, West Point, Alabama, Michigan, New Zealand, France, Britain who come to Columbus to work, visit, shop and do the Pilgrimage tour? Service costs means what exactly? Police, fire? What do visitors to Columbus, people shopping here and spending money here do to increase the load on the PD and fire depts?
What wasn't been answered were my questions about the land we annexed in the last annexation, haven't developed and have pretty much ignored.
Who will pay the legal costs from the lawsuits that definitely come from this plan? The last time we, the CL&W customers paid the costs. Are we going to hit with that again?
The last annexation was when, 1995? We lost 3,000 residents in the ten years before '95. That statistic was placed into the public record during the last annexation trial. What happened to the homes those families and individuals lived in? We are no bigger now than we were then, population wise and we pulled in 13 more sq. miles then. Did we bulldoze those homes? How can we have a housing shortage?
What's up with the UT site, is the KM site on the cleanup list, are we ever going to get going with island development and when are the people we dragged into the city last time going to get some justice?
I still haven't heard how the mayor and council are going to prevent dragging 6,000 people into the city from dramatically changing voting demographics for the city's wards.

I'll wait...

 

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