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.