Buncombe floats higher property bills for 2021-22

Buncombe property values
BEFORE AND AFTER: Median home values for different regions of Buncombe County prior to the recent revaluation are shown in black. Current pre-appeal median values are shown in red. Graphic by Scott Southwick

As Buncombe County officials have repeatedly stressed since embarking on the revaluation of all county real estate last year, higher property values don’t automatically translate into bigger tax bills. What owners owe depends on the rate set each year by the county Board of Commissioners. But according to an April 22 board discussion, that rate for the next fiscal year looks likely to increase taxpayers’ burden.

Budget analyst Rusty Mau said that county staff was proposing a tax rate of 48.9 cents per $100 of property value for the billing period that starts in July, down 4 cents from the current rate of 52.9 cents per $100. However, the rate is 2.1 cents higher than what Buncombe would need to charge to maintain current revenue levels.

For the median home in Buncombe County — worth $231,400 before revaluation and $291,000 now — the new rate would boost taxes by over 16%, from $1,224 to $1,423 per year. The percentage increase is greater than the roughly 14% rise commissioners approved in 2017.

None of the six Democratic commissioners objected to the proposed increase during the April 22 meeting. (Robert Pressley, the board’s only Republican and an advocate for lowering taxes in previous budget cycles, was absent as he recovered from a minor surgery.) But Commissioner Amanda Edwards emphasized a need to educate the public about how their higher taxes would benefit the county.

“I think we have to do a really good job of communicating what services are going to be enhanced as a result of the property tax,” Edwards said. “I put that challenge out to all of us, as well as staff, to ensure that we’re really communicating that to everyone across Buncombe County.”

More for the money

Mau explained that the tax hike would put roughly $10 million more into county coffers than would be expected with a revenue-neutral rate, with total projected property tax revenues for fiscal year 2021-22 coming to $233.7 million. Over half of that new money would be earmarked for the county’s strategic goals, with the remainder supporting foundational government business.

The single largest item would be a $2.7 million increase in funding for the county’s K-12 schools and A-B Tech, a 3% rise over last year’s budget. Early childhood education spending would go up by $851,000, while about $600,000 would provide more funds and staff support for conservation easements on farms and other vulnerable county land.

Roughly $1.2 million would fund new employees across a variety of departments, including pretrial screeners at the county detention center and an inspector for septic and wastewater systems. The most well-remunerated new job would be that of equity officer, for which the county has budgeted $167,000 in salary and benefits.

County Manager Avril Pinder said the push for that new role had come from discussions with Buncombe’s Equity and Inclusion Workgroup, tasked with developing a Racial Equity Action Plan for the county. While she had initially denied the workgroup’s request for two equity-focused positions because the plan hadn’t been finalized, she continued, community members were seeking quicker action.

“‘We want to see you put your money where your mouth is,’” Pinder reported as her main takeaway from those conversations. “My thought at first was going to be a slow implementation, but I don’t think I have the runway to do that.”

Who’s got the tab?

Edwards, meanwhile, highlighted an equity concern with the new taxes themselves. “Those folks who are living in higher-valued houses did not seem to see the same rate of growth in their appraisal,” she said. “That does lead me to think that it is going to impact our folks who are living in different housing type situations and different income situations.”

According to pre-appeal numbers, the median home value in wealthy Biltmore Forest increased by nearly $93,000 between 2017 and 2021, but the area’s median change in sales ratio after reappraisal — which represents how closely the county’s appraised values track actual sale prices — went up just 4%. All other parts of the county saw double-digit percentage increases in sales ratio; in the Southside neighborhood of Asheville, for example, median home value increased by over $70,000, and the median change in sales ratio was 26%.

Because property taxes are directly linked to valuation, Biltmore Forest homeowners will likely see proportionately lower increases in their tax bills than any other Buncombe residents. Such differences may have disproportionate racial impacts; Biltmore Forest is over 95% white, while Southside is approximately 34% Black.

Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara encouraged the county to center equity as it continued its tax discussions. One approach, she suggested, might be helping low-income residents appeal their property values, a process Buncombe has increasingly moved online.

“Having an online appeals process works amazingly for some people,” Beach-Ferrara said. “Maybe we could think about some ways to make sure that appeals process is really as accessible as possible, especially to folks with more limited income or for whom that process just might not feel very accessible.”

Although Buncombe will receive over $51 million in COVID-19 relief funding from the federal American Rescue Plan, that money will likely not change the board’s approach to property taxes. As explained by Mau, the county aims to use such one-time sources of revenue for one-time expenses like new infrastructure, while recurring tax revenue is paired with recurring expenses like personnel and education.

No formal vote on the tax increase was taken during the meeting. The next step of Buncombe’s budget process is scheduled for Tuesday, May 11, when the county’s schools and fire departments will present their requests. A final draft budget is tentatively scheduled for presentation on Tuesday, May 18, with the public hearing on the document slated for Tuesday, June 1.

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About Daniel Walton
Daniel Walton is the Assistant Editor of Mountain Xpress, regularly contributing to coverage of Western North Carolina's government, environment and health care. His work has previously appeared in Capital at Play, Edible Asheville, and the Citizen-Times, among other area publications. Follow me @DanielWWalton

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12 thoughts on “Buncombe floats higher property bills for 2021-22

  1. Taxpayer

    They can just float all the not required, not mandatory items out of the budget, back on the table and stop giving away more holiday days. Do you think taxpayers are rolling in money? Who else in the US has 13 paid holidays but Buncombe County employees? Who has some of the highest paid county commissioners and county manager in the state? We do. Cha ching. Stop spending money we don’t have.

  2. indy499

    The key data is that the average taxpayer will see a 16% increase in taxes due, which is absurd to most anyone not directly consuming at the government food trough.

    The racial argument is non sensensical. Just depends on when you want to start the movie. Lower value houses in the last couple years have zoomed in price. The assessment is now what they are worth. If you think the assessment is too high, appeal away but its a pretty standard methodolgy and no one should expect much change. State law requires a constant tax rate applied to equal assessments. There is no latitude to charge differential amounts to favored groups. Thank god NC law dictates the tax/revenue rules to the counties and incorporated areas.

    • luther blissett

      “The racial argument is non sensensical. Just depends on when you want to start the movie. Lower value houses in the last couple years have zoomed in price. The assessment is now what they are worth. ”

      I mean, it isn’t. A race-neutral assessment doesn’t take into account that homes in Black neighborhoods routinely sell at lower prices, and Black-owned homes anywhere are routinely appraised at lower values than comparable properties nearby. There is a lot of research on this: realtors tell Black families to clear out photos and other indicators when showing a home, or even to have a white person greet the appraiser. It means that Black homeowners essentially subsidize everybody else, with the greatest subsidy going to those in the most expensive homes. But this applies at all times, and the appeals process is not suited to deal with it.

      State law pretty much dictated the reassessment, but it took place in the middle of: a) a pandemic; b) a period of unprecedented economic uncertainty; b) an explosion of real estate prices thanks to new arrivals from more expensive markets. This is not the thirstiest the county could have been toward the new valuation, but it is being thirsty about its big lump of federal aid.

      When tax bills are sent out — not long before enhanced UI ends — homeowners will only have a few months to catch up on escrow payments or put aside the additional amount before the end of the grace period. That’s perhaps $40 or $50 a month extra, which is a dent in the finances for those on lower/fixed incomes. A less abrupt approach would be to adopt a revenue-neutral rate for 2021 while committing to the increased rate for 2022. That gives time to plan for the increase. If it means using $10 million of federal aid to make up the difference, so be it. A pandemic year is (let’s hope) a one-time expense. The county would still have $40 million.

      • indy499

        There is nothing different in the methodolgy used in the recent reassessment. Houses in some neighborhoods went up more than others. Just a fact. If one doesn’t think so, all one needs to do is contest to valuation. Rarely works because the math is very straightforward.

        • luther blissett

          You’re right that nothing has changed in the methodology, but you’re still missing the point about the difference between assessed value and appraised / market value.

          • indy499

            No, you are missing the point. The assessment reflects the estimated real market value of a house. If house prices in an area have been relatively low for whatever reason, that weakness would be reflected in the new assessment. The new assessment doesn’t just pop to some number based on nothing. It is based on comps in the area.

            Why do you think there is so much difference in the rate of increase in the different sub-regions? Because demand has been different by zone. Lower priced homes have been in huge demand and prices in those areas have gone up more than others. They got bigger % increases. That may be true for areas with a higher % african Americans. It just is—because the value of the house has gone up based on real sales in that zone.

            Anybody who thinks they got screwed and has some comps at prices that reflect that should contest their assessment. Come with facts though.

  3. Richard B.

    Instead of spending nearly $170,000 for an “equity manager”, a really empty sounding title if ever there was one, how about spending that amount for a couple of bright folks who know how to organize a community in need to help improve itself?
    The Woodson Center is a good example to follow. Robert Woodson is an African American who has exemplified the proven notion that grass roots efforts work better than PR stunts with high moral ground sounding terms like “equity” and so forth.
    He has demonstrated that neighborhood-based initiatives to revitalize low income communities work. Google Bob Woodson or Woodson Center. This is a message for the BC Commissioners.

      • Richard B.

        I did not. Thanks for the link.
        Curious if you are indicating that you feel the $170,000 would not bolster their efforts, – that the Equity Manager would be more effective in improving the conditions in the low income neighborhoods?

      • Curious

        I was intrigued by your mention of the Woodson Center, which I did not know about. You may be right that the funds for an Equity Manager might be better directed to local organizations which are already attempting to build equity for historically Black neighborhoods.

  4. Virginia Ritter

    Isn’t it time for the thousands and thousands of tourists who use our infrastructure systems start paying taxes to the county. The Tourist Authorities who hold all the money does very little to relieve our tax bills. The City and county should be given all that money,not spend on advertisements for more tourists!

    • luther blissett

      State law says otherwise until it’s changed. But the TDA is projecting $25.4 million in revenues for the 2020-21 fiscal year (which ends in June) having spent pretty much nothing on advertising last year. That’s twice the entire budget of Black Mountain.

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