By Leslee Kulba- The Buncombe County Commissioners entertained a formality introducing the reappraisal schedule for 2017. Compassionate Tax Administrator Gary Roberts invited citizens to review the 600-page Schedule of Values, Standards and Rules, accessible through many links on the county’s web site. It is the guide that will be used until the next reappraisal. A Citizen Reappraisal Guide, also online, serves as an overview.
North Carolina General Statutes require counties to reappraise properties at least every eight years, and Buncombe County has a practice of doing it every four. The last one was performed in 2013, after many counties were postponing the work due to massive foreclosures and fire sales in the aftermath of the housing bubble. It is normal for counties to appraise more frequently when economies are thriving in order to capture increasing values. All other factors being equal, the more frequently a county appraises property, the more just its taxes will be.
In preparation for appraisals, which will be completed by January 1, county staff began assessing Buncombe’s 127,000 parcels in 2400 neighborhoods in “door to door visits” in April 2014. The county uses “a computer aided mass appraisal system” to analyze and track data collected from property owners, realtors, contractors, building suppliers, and lending institutions. Valuations are arrived at through various combinations of market, replacement cost, and income analyses. Variables considered include location, type of construction, age, soil type, topography, purpose, and zoning. If construction is in-process, the value of the property is based on the stage of construction when the property is assessed.
Property owners will be notified of their new assessments January 30. At that time, the county manager will have enough information to estimate revenues for the next year. Property taxes make up 60.47 percent of the county’s revenues. Other sources include state, federal, and sales taxes; fees for sales and services; and licenses, permits, and fees. In the current $308 million budget, the broad categories receiving the most are Human Services with $97 million; Education, $74 million; Public Safety, $66 million; General Government, $30 million; and Debt Service, $21 million.
In preparing the budget, the manager will also look at projected expenditures, based on the operating budgets submitted by each county department and agency. The tax rate will be set as the quotient of the budget to all property tax revenues, and expressed as pennies per $100 valuation. The current rate is 60.40 percent.
In early June, the proposed budget will be subject to a public hearing at a regularly-scheduled commissioners’ meeting. Since about 90 percent of county government activities are services mandated by the state and federal government, the commissioners can only haggle over items like how much will be granted to outside agencies and large multinational corporations seeking incentives to locate in the area.
In recent years, there has been some back and forth between the commissioners and county manager. Commissioner Mike Fryar, for example, will usually ask County Manager Dr. Wanda Greene to look into reducing expenditures on capital investments, like construction and rolling stock. Commissioner Joe Belcher worked to ensure county grants were going to accountable nonprofits performing services the county would otherwise have to pick up.
The budget will be adopted before the fiscal year begins on July 1. The tax bills will be mailed in August, and they will include taxes calculated independently for pertinent municipalities, fire districts, and school districts. Taxes will be due September 1, with a four-month interest-free grace period. Persons unable to pay are encouraged to contact the tax office to work out a payment plan, and that’s why Roberts is known as the Compassionate Tax Administrator.
The county accepts payments made in person or via snail mail at the Tax Department at 94 Coxe Avenue or from the drive-up drop box at 35 Woodfin Street. The county further accepts credit card and electronic check payments by phone or online, and a preauthorized debit program is also available.
Property owners who wish to dispute their assessed value must fill out and submit an informal appeal form, copies of which are available online and at the Tax Department, before April 1. Information substantiating the owner’s claims, such as photographs or records of sale, must be included. Following a thorough reconsideration by appraisers, the property owner will be notified by mail of any changes.
If the owner is still not satisfied, he must file a formal appeal within thirty days of the date on the informal appeal notice. Then, the county will schedule meeting where the property owner and an appraiser can review available data and methods. If no agreement can be reached, the matter will be escalated to the Board of Equalization and Review for a public hearing. The decision will be mailed to the property owner within the next thirty days.
If the property owner still believes his appraisal to be unjust, he may appeal to the state’s Property Tax Commission within the next thirty-day period. Following an unsatisfactory result, the property owner may challenge the decision in the North Carolina Court of Appeals and then the North Carolina Supreme Court.
Tax reductions are available for qualified veterans, senior citizens, and disabled persons. Exemptions may be available for property used for religious or charitable purposes, burial, or scientific or academic purposes. A third program allows land used for agriculture, forestry, or horticulture to be taxed at a rate lower than that assessed for the highest and best use. But if the property is ever developed, the discount will not apply, and will be deemed past due with interest for the three previous years. More details are available on the county’s web site.
On a positive budgetary note, during a Manager’s Report, Greene announced the county had been able to make it through the fiscal year without dipping into its fund balance. County management typically balances the annual budget, for presentation purposes, with withdrawals from fund balance; but throughout the year, it scrimps and saves to eliminate the need. The practice was made more challenging this year when the county’s legal counsel advised settling lawsuits of unlawful imprisonments for $4.8 million.