Tax Administrator Gary Roberts presented a case for moving up the date of the county’s revaluation. The state requires the county to go through the process every eight years, and the county, until the Great Recession, had done it every four. General Statutes allow the state to perform revals as frequently as they choose. Counties with populations of 75,000 or more, such as Buncombe, must perform revals whenever valuations are out of whack beyond statutory thresholds.
When the county did its last revaluation, it lost about $1 billion due to plummeting property values. At the time, it was not unusual for counties in Western North Carolina to break their precedents of performing revaluations every four years. Property value are now on the rebound, and Roberts said the county had to readjust rates to come up with the revenues government needs to provide services.
A sales assessment ratio less than 85 percent or more than 115 percent will trigger a letter from the state requiring a reval within a specified time period. Buncombe County’s sales assessment ratio is now 84.55 percent. Roberts wanted to proact a reval before receipt of the letter in the interests of project management and to allow time to perform more thorough and accurate assessments.
Roberts explained his department assesses properties by dividing the county into 2600 neighborhoods and looking at the price per square foot of homes that sell. Properties foreclosed or short-sold are not included in the calculations. A mass appraisal is then adjusted for styles and conditions of housing. Lots are assessed in terms of zoning, floodways, access, utilities, and location. Independently-standing structures are also factored. If people disagree with the assessment, perhaps if they have flood or bug damage, they are encouraged to notify the county. Roberts stressed that revaluations in no way raise property values in the same neighborhood by the same percentage.
Roberts said he wanted to be fair. There were “hot” areas, like Montford, West Asheville, Kenilworth, Beaver Lake, Kimberly, and many places in South Asheville, where property values were soaring. In addition, a number of apartment complexes and upscale hotels are being constructed in downtown Asheville, and the developers are paying taxes only on the value of the unimproved land. By contrast, people in rural areas and other poor neighborhoods were paying more than their fair share. Roberts said the assessment ratio was as low as 50 percent in some neighborhoods.
Roberts presented the commissioners with a timeline. With a green light, staff would return to the commissioners to present a schedule of values in a public hearing in August. Property owners would then have thirty days to review and challenge the schedule. New notices would be mailed in January of 2017, and requests to appeal would be accepted through mid-April. The new rates would go into effect in June, 2017, and the new bills would go out in August.
Commissioner Mike Fryar pointed out that if the commissioners waited for a letter from the state, they could forestall the mailing of revalued tax bills for three years. He pointed to West Asheville and said the commissioners are always hearing about the need for affordable housing. He said it was his job to help his constituents more than it was to help government.
Brownie Newman, who lives in Montford, said the revaluation would raise his property values, but proceeding was the fair thing to do. He made a motion to go ahead with the revaluation in the interest of fairness; particularly for poor families who were paying disproportionately more than families in a better financial position.
Roberts said the county worked hard with people who can’t pay their taxes. The county continues to have an extremely high collection rate, 99.72 percent. He said over 2500 seniors were paying their taxes monthly. Bankruptcies and divorce are not unusual. Some elderly and disabled people can only pay $50 a month. If they are working on and off, they can pay more when they have more income. The county strives to help people give the county the money it needs without foreclosing on their property.
Chair David Gantt went over some mechanics. Now in his fifth term on the commission, Gantt said when he was first elected the tax rate was 73 cents. The tax rate is now 60.40 cents, but property values have increased to maintain revenue neutrality. He and County Manager Dr. Wanda Greene wanted the public to understand that assessments were the product of the tax rate and assessments.
County Attorney Bob Deutsch was consulted multiple times for clarification on the rules. Foreseeing a tied vote, which would cause Newman’s motion to fail, Jones wanted to postpone consideration until a full board was present. DeBruhl said the problem of a party-line tie should have been foreseen when Frost stated publicly at the last meeting she would not be present. Newman then withdrew his motion, making Jones’ motion to postpone moot.
After further consultations with Deutsch DeBruhl forced the vote. The “Rules and Procedures for the Board of Buncombe County Commissioners” does not clarify how taking the vote was any more strategic than letting the motion die for lack of a second. Commissioner Mike Fryar later explained requiring a vote put the commissioners on record as voting for or against a tax increase, and further highlighted the fact that the Democrats shouldn’t have put the measure on the agenda if they knew they didn’t have the votes to pass it.