Buncombe County Manager Wanda Greene is recommending commissioners approve a big tax hike to balance the budget.
Her proposal for the 2013-14 fiscal year, which begins July 1, calls for raising the property-tax rate by roughly 15 percent. She blames the sputtering economy, a drop in property values, increased funding requests and unfunded federal mandates for the increase.
Buncombe County property values were evaluated this year for the first time since 2006, dropping overall by about $2.8 billion — from $30.4 billion to $27.6 billion. That means that the county would need to raise the tax rate just to bring in the same amount of revenue it brought in last year. That “revenue neutral” rate would be 57.83 cents per $100 of property value — that’s up from the current rate of 52.5 cents, according to Greene.
Whether a county resident actually pays more in taxes under a revenue neutral rate depends on whether their individual property value went up or down.
Greene’s budget calls for a base rate of 56.9 cents, which is lower than revenue neutral. But on top of that, she’s requesting an additional 3.5 cent levy on property to fund programs managed by a new Culture and Recreation Authority. A bill needed to allow the county to create that entity is currently under consideration by the North Carolina Senate. Introduced by Rep. Nathan Ramsey, former chair of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, the measure passed the Statehouse with strong support.
If the Senate fails to act, Greene maintains that the 3.5 cent tax would need to be added to the 56.9 cent tax to balance the books, effectively making the new rate for county property owners 60.4 cents per $100 of value regardless of what the state does. That calculates to about a 15 percent rate increase from the current tax of 52.5 cents.
The value of high-end properties in wealthy areas like Biltmore Forest and The Cliffs at Walnut Creek fell drastically in this year’s appraisal, which means that even if the rate is higher, owners of those properties may end up paying less, under the plan. However, many Asheville residents, whose properties went up overall by about 2 percent, could end up facing much higher tax bills under the proposal. Plus the city, which is facing its own budget crunch, is also considering raising its property tax rate.
The county budget includes $1.31 million in yearly financing to fulfill a $18 million request by the Asheville City School system to fund a new building for Isaac Dickson Elementary School. It also includes $500,000 towards implementing the Buncombe County Greenway Master Plan, which was approved last year but has yet to receive any significant taxpayer funding.
In her report, Greene cites several other specific reasons to increase the tax rate, including:
• Making up a $2.37 million federal funding shortfall to cover adult protective services and child welfare services.
• Fulfilling recommendations by the School Safety Committee to hire eight new social workers and seven school resource officers to improve safety in the school system, at a cost $1.26 million.
• Covering $928,000 in federally mandated provisions of the Affordable Care Act.
• Increasing public-safety funding by $1.2 million to cover security for new courthouses and the opening of two new pods in the jail.
• Covering a $1.67 million increase in operating expenses by the Asheville and Buncombe County school systems, including a 1 percent raise for staff.
Still, the property tax increase isn’t enough to balance the budget on its own: Greene’s plan also calls for dipping into the county’s rainy day fund to the tune of $7.74 million. That’s slightly less than last year’s budget called for. However, none of the money ended up being used last year, as county departments found ways to cut costs throughout the year. Greene said she will ask departments to do the same this year.
Further down the horizon, Greene’s capital plan calls for spending $40 million to build a new Asheville Middle School building, starting in fiscal year 2016, although no money is allocated for it in the 2014 budget.
Beginning in 2016, the plan also calls for the proposed Culture and Recreation Authority to spend $30 million on a major new aquatics facility, including an indoor competition pool and outdoor splash pool.
Greene is scheduled to present the budget proposal to the Buncombe County Commissioners at its May 28 meeting. A public hearing will be conduced later in June.