County continues review of conservation use
By Tara DeRock Mahoney
Senior Staff Writer
Morgan County Commissioners heard a presentation last week from a specialist regarding the evaluation of the fiscal impacts of land uses. Jeffrey Dorfman, of Dorfman Consulting, talked to the board about both the cost of county services and the currently controversial conservation use tax abatement program.
Dorfman was hired by the county to evaluate the specific cost in services of different types of land uses; the results may surprise some residents. According to Dorfman, the county makes money on agricultural land, even if that program is in the Conservation Use Value Assessment program (CUVA), a tax-abatement program that allows the owners of agricultural properties who agree not to develop their land for at least 10 years to be evaluated at a highly preferential tax rate far below that of fair market prices.
The program is often simply referred to as “conservation use.” The county collects $1.06 in taxes for every $1 in services provided to agricultural landowners, said Dorfman. Businesses in the county pay $1.94 in taxes for every $1 in services they receive; the average property owner pays only 94 cents in taxes for every $1 in services he receives.
“[Residents] get more back in services than they are paying for,” said Dorfman. “They can do that because businesses are paying more [in taxes] than they receive [in services.]” Still, the sheer number of land parcels in Morgan County that are in CUVA (1,555 separate parcels, or about 60 percent of the county in terms of acreage) combined with the relatively low number of businesses means that county residents end up paying what Dorfman calls “invisible taxes.”
Morgan County loses a lot of tax revenue on those CUVA properties. The estimated value of those 1,500 or so parcels, according to Dorfman, is in excess of $360 million dollars; that translates into lost revenue for the county of about $3 million per year. The loss in revenue to the school board is even higher—about $4.6 million. “That’s property tax that would have been collected if the [CUVA] property were evaluated [at fair market tax rates],” said Dorfman.
Put another way, if the county had no CUVA program, the county millage rate could theoretically drop as much as 2.2 mills, and the school board tax rate could drop 3.4 mills, said Dorfman.
Commissioners at the work session asked Dorfman about an oft-heard support for the conservation use program, the contention that if the CUVA program went away, Morgan County would be overrun by developers virtually overnight. “Do you think if there was no conservation use, all that land would be for sale tomorrow?” asked Commission Chair Mack Bohlen. “This being Morgan County, no, I don’t think so,” said Dorfman. “Some land would be for sale, but….could a lot of people sell land quickly? No.”
Bohlen agreed, and pointed out that in his opinion, people who are currently farming family land will hold onto that land for as long as they can. Commissioner Ellen Jones agreed, but also said that the CUVA program makes it possible for some of those families to continue farming and other agricultural programs. Jones, who has land in conservation use, raises beef cattle, among other things.
“Could I keep my land if there were no conservation use program? I just don’t know,” she said.
Still, despite some of these “invisible taxes” caused by tax abatement programs, people in Georgia are, in general, very supportive of programs designed to protect agricultural land. “There’s actually really good support for farmland in the state of Georgia,” said Dorfman.
In a survey conducted by him, he found that residents would likely pass (possibly by a small margin) a hypothetical bill that would add $50 to their tax bill each year to protect farmland. His survey found that if a “Farm Preservation” license plate were made by the state, residents would buy it “in large numbers,” according to Dorfman.
“Support [for farming] among non-farmers is pretty strong,” said Dorfman. For residents who don’t want to tie up their development rights for a long period of time, the county tax assessor’s office also offers an “agricultural preference” program, in which qualified landowners can receive a tax reduction on agricultural land—not quite as attractive a taxation rate as conservation use, but lower than the fair market value rate. But over the years, the ease with which landowners can get into CUVA means that the number of parcels in agricultural preference in Morgan County has dwindled to only nine, and commissioners are currently considering new CUVA rules for the county which could see agricultural properties of less than 25 acres excluded from CUVA in the future. “I think this is good-quality food for thought,” said Bohlen.