Griggers: Conservation Use fraud is up, should only apply to ‘bonafide’ farm properties

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By Nick Nunn, Staff Writer

During the Oct. 14 work session of the Morgan County Board of Commissioners (BOC), the board heard presentations from Larry Griggers, CEO of AVTACS, Inc., and Ron Zay, chair of the Morgan County Tax Assessor board, concerning Conservation Use Valuation Assessment (CUVA).

Griggers served as the director of the property tax division of the Georgia Department of Revenue from 1988 to 2003 before becoming CEO of AVTACS, Inc., a company that assists individual counties’ board of assessors.

Griggers described the history of events that led to the creation of CUVA in the early 1990s, noting that CUVA could only be applied to “bonafide,” non-commercial farms with an area of 2,000 acres or less.

The original impetus for creating CUVA was to allow farmers to enjoy tax valuation benefits – thus being able to retain their property in spite of rising land values – in exchange for agreeing to not develop that property for a period of 10 years.

Griggers noted that, as the tax incentives have become more and more enticing since the creation of the program, the incidence of fraud involving CUVA applications has increased.

After pointing out that, when CUVA is granted for a property, the tax burden on the county isn’t lifted but only shifted to other taxpayers, Griggers said that misuses of CUVA can be similar to seeing a mansion on a property but simply choosing not to tax it.

“No exceptions, you just have shifts,” said Griggers, who described misuse of CUVA as “cheating the system.”

Griggers gave a list of things to look for when considering granting CUVA to a property, including making sure that the farming taking place is subsistence farming or that the farm is making money. Griggers stated that the key to CUVA is to remember the original intention of the incentive

In response to BOC Chair Ellen Warrens’ question of whether there can be too many CUVA properties in a county, Griggers said that, as long as CUVA applications are being fairly assessed, there cannot be too many CUVA incentives awarded.

Ron Zay, chair of the Morgan County Tax Assessors Board stated the board has “worked diligently” to investigate CUVA applications, noting that approximately 80 percent of what the board works on is CUVA applications.

Zay said that a total of 1,807 land parcels in Morgan County currently enjoy CUVA benefits, and, in the last year, the board reviewed 314 renewal requests and 63 new CUVA applications. 11 applications were denied.

“We as board members look at each and every parcel,” said Zay.

The board has been proactive as well by creating and implementing a definition of “wildlife management” that has consequently been adopted by other counties.

The BOC also heard from Burke Walker of the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission (NEGRC), which works with counties and other partnering agencies and an “extension” of their staff for administrative needs.

Walker emphasized the NEGRC’s willingness to assist with the grant writing process and serve as a “vehicle” for public-service, infrastructure, and other types of projects.

Walker stated that since local governing bodies are now competing for fewer grants, the grant-writing process has become more competitive.

Andrew Chase, Morgan County representative from the Region 2 Mental Health, Disabilities, and Addictive Disease Developmental Planning Board, was the final speaker to address the BOC.

Chase stated that only 25 of the 42 positions on the Region 2 board are currently filled, and that, after being named to the board by the BOC last year, he has since been named chairman of the board. He said that most of the board’s current efforts involve recruiting members to fill the empty spaces on the board.

Otherwise, said Chase, Georgia’s 2010 settlement with the United States Justice Department concerning state psychiatric hospitals dictates “98 percent of what is going on” with mental healthcare in the state.

The BOC also approved the contract for meal programs with Georgia Food Service.

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