As the Buncombe County Tax Department taketh away, so may the county’s Health and Human Services giveth. That was the gist of the proposal for property tax relief that Phillip Hardin, Buncombe’s economic services director, outlined during a June 15 briefing to the county Board of Commissioners.
Buncombe’s fiscal year 2021-22 budget — passed unanimously by the board at its regular meeting later that day — includes an effective property tax increase of 2 cents per $100 of valuation. For the median home in the county, that equates to a rise of about 16%.
However, many modest homes saw higher percentage increases in value than did more expensive properties during the county’s recently completed revaluation. Commissioners had expressed concerns that low-income residents would thus bear a disproportionate share of the tax hike and asked staff to explore how that burden might be reduced.
In the program as described by Hardin, homeowning households making up to 80% of the area median income ($60,100 for a family of four) could apply for county assistance. The grants would cover increases in tax bills from 2020 to 2021 — but only up to $1,000 total and only for Buncombe County and city of Asheville taxes. Tax hikes for other municipalities, Asheville City Schools and volunteer fire districts would remain the homeowner’s responsibility.
Jennifer Pike, the county’s tax collector, said that the grants would be significantly more generous than existing property tax relief programs. Those exemptions are limited to residents who are over age 65, disabled or veterans, and have lower income thresholds.
Buncombe’s budget includes $300,000 for the grant program, for which Hardin said residents could apply on a first-come, first-served basis once tax bills are sent in August. But board Chair Brownie Newman encouraged staff to think about simpler or automatic approaches to providing aid, suggesting that the application process might prove a barrier to those most in need.
“We know from some of the other communities that are doing this that they’ve had trouble really getting participation,” Newman said. “Our intention is to create a program that would be widely utilized by the residents of our county who would meet the criteria.”
Feedback on the proposal can be submitted through Friday, June 25, to firstname.lastname@example.org.
County ends COVID-19 emergency
More than 15 months after Buncombe declared a local state of emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic on March 12, 2020, commissioners unanimously approved a resolution declaring the emergency’s end on June 15. Stacie Saunders, the county’s public health director, delivered her last formal COVID-19 briefing earlier that day.
“Due to the success of masking, social distancing precautions and COVID-19 vaccination efforts, we have seen a decline in COVID-19 cases in Buncombe County,” said Angela Ledford, a planner with Buncombe’s emergency management team. As of June 15, the county was seeing just 15 cases per 100,000 residents per week, with a test positivity rate of 1.2%.
While Ledford emphasized that the pandemic is not over, especially for those who remain unvaccinated, she said the county no longer needs its emergency operations center to coordinate a response. She also noted that Buncombe’s COVID-19 vaccine operation will move to the county’s Health and Human Services building at 40 Coxe Ave. on Wednesday, June 23.