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Official Opinion 98-21

Official Opinion 98-21

December 21, 1998
To: 

Commissioner
Georgia Department of Revenue

Re: 

Official Code of Georgia Annotated § 48-5-304 permits the Department of Revenue to accept an ad valorem tax digest submitted for review by a county in a revaluation year if either (a) the disputed assessed value of property involved in arbitration or appeals is 5% or less of the total assessed value of all property reflected on the taxable tangible digest, or (b) the number of parcels of property involved in arbitration or appeals is 5% or less of the total number of parcels shown on the digest.

You have asked this office for its official opinion regarding the circumstances under which the Department of Revenue may accept a county’s tax digest for review in a year when the county has implemented a total revaluation of the property therein for ad valorem tax purposes. The applicable Code Section provides in pertinent part as follows:

The commissioner shall not approve any digest when the assessed value that is in dispute for any property or properties on appeal or in arbitration exceeds 3 percent of the total assessed value of the total taxable tangible digest of the county for the same year. In any year when a complete reevaluation or reappraisal program is implemented, 5 percent of the property, by assessed value in dispute, or number of properties may be in arbitration or on appeal.

O.C.G.A. § 48-5-304(a) (emphasis added). According to your letter, the Department has until recently taken the position that it would accept a digest submitted by a county in a revaluation year if either (a) the disputed assessed value of property involved in arbitration or appeals was 5% or less of the total assessed value of all property reflected on the taxable tangible digest, or (b) the number of parcels of property involved in arbitration or appeals was 5% or less of the total number shown on the digest. Within the last several months, however, a question has arisen regarding whether the statute in fact permits the Department to accept a digest for review in a revaluation year only when (a) and (b) are both met. Allowing the Department to accept a digest as long as property tax appeals do not exceed 5% -- as opposed to the 3% maximum that otherwise would apply -- is clearly designed to accommodate the increase in disputes one would normally expect to occur following a county-wide reappraisal effort. As evidenced by your opinion request, the difficult issue is determining precisely how much leeway the General Assembly intended to provide in this respect.

In my opinion, the statute is sufficiently ambiguous that arguments can be made in support of either interpretation. For example, the first sentence of the language quoted above refers to the circumstances under which the Department will reject a digest for review in a non-revaluation year. This fact might suggest that the second sentence should be read similarly as establishing “either/or” conditions for rejecting a digest when a revaluation has taken place. The statute would then be applied as follows:

The commissioner shall not approve any digest when the assessed value that is in dispute for any property or properties on appeal or in arbitration exceeds 3 percent of the total assessed value of the total taxable tangible digest of the county for the same year. In any year when a complete reevaluation or reappraisal program is implemented, the commissioner shall not approve any digest when more than 5 percent of the property, by assessed value in dispute, or number of properties is in arbitration or on appeal.

The overall statutory scheme for approving a county tax digest also appears to assume that the document submitted to the Department will be reasonably close to what eventually turns out to be the actual digest after all appeals are over. See, e.g., O.C.G.A. § 48-5-343 (setting forth statistical tests which must be applied to digest values in certain years to establish that a digest is “reasonably uniform and equalized”). The above reading of the statute would support that assumption by allowing the Department to reject any digest where more than 5% of the total value reflected therein was being contested, even if fewer than 5% of the total property parcels in the county were involved.

At the same time, “[i]n all interpretations of statutes, the courts shall look diligently for the intention of the General Assembly.” O.C.G.A. § 1-3-1(a). Moreover, “in attempting to ascertain legislative intent of a doubtful statute, a court may look to the caption of the act.” Sikes v. State, 268 Ga. 19, 21 (1997). See generally Latham v. State, 225 Ga. App. 147, 149 (1997) (“nothing is more pertinent[ ] towards ascertaining the true intention of the legislative mind . . . than the legislature’s own interpretation of the scope and purpose of the act, as contained in the caption,” quoting Copher v. Mackey, 220 Ga. App. 43, 45 (1996)). When the statute at issue was amended in 1972, the caption of the act stated the purpose was “to provide that in any year where complete reevaluation or reappraisal programs have been undertaken, that 5% of the property or number of properties may be in arbitration or on appeal and the digest may still be approved.” 1972 Ga. Laws 824, 824 (emphasis added). Hence, the caption indicates what the statutory language alone does not: i.e., that the statute was intended to establish “either/or” conditions for accepting a digest submitted in a revaluation year. As such, the statute would permit the Department to accept a digest for review when 5% or less of either the property values or number of properties is under appeal.

Since being told that you wished to seek an official opinion on this issue, we have also been advised that the Department’s construction was adopted shortly after the passage of the pertinent amendment in 1972 and has been applied consistently ever since. Given the statute’s ambiguity, this additional fact is further persuasive support for the Department’s position. “The interpretation of a statute by an administrative agency which has the duty of enforcing or administering it is to be given great weight and deference,” Commissioner of Ins. v. Stryker, 218 Ga. App. 716, 718 (1995), particularly in this case, since more than 25 years have passed since the Department’s interpretation was first adopted.

For the reasons above, it is my official opinion that O.C.G.A. § 48-5-304 permits the Department of Revenue to accept an ad valorem tax digest submitted for review by a county in a revaluation year if either (a) the disputed assessed value of property involved in arbitration or appeals is 5% or less of the total assessed value of all property reflected on the taxable tangible digest, or (b) the number of parcels of property involved in arbitration or appeals is 5% or less of the total number shown on the digest.

Prepared by:

WARREN R. CALVERT
Senior Assistant Attorney General


Accepting the county’s digest for review does not guarantee its ultimate approval by the Department. See, e.g., O.C.G.A. § 48-5-342 (“Each digest for a county in a digest review year shall be examined for the purpose of determining if the valuations of property for taxation purposes are reasonably uniform and equalized between counties and within counties.”).

Prior to its amendment in 1972, the statute required the Department to reject a digest whenever “the assessed value fixed by the Board of Tax Assessors for any property, or properties, on appeal or in arbitration exceed[ed] 3% of the total assessed value of the total digest of such county for the same year.” 1971 Ga. Laws 301, sec. 1. I recognize that the word “or” can be interpreted in a statute either as a disjunctive term or a conjunctive term. Gearinger v. Lee, 266 Ga. 167, 169 (1996). Nevertheless, “where a legislative provision is phrased in the disjunctive, it must be so construed absent a clear indication that a disjunctive construction is contrary to the legislative intent.” Id.