Buncombe taking steps to make tax values more equitable

Keith Miller
ADJUSTING THE SCALES: Buncombe County Tax Assessor Keith Miller describes plans to make the county’s tax assessment system fairer during a meeting of the county Board of Commissioners Oct. 18. Photo by Mark Barrett

If you took a week off work this spring to build a bedroom in your unfinished basement, Buncombe County government wants to know.

And if you think the value the county has assigned your home for property taxes is too high, the county wants to know that, too.

In response to allegations that Buncombe’s tax assessment system discriminates against owners of modest homes and gives a tax break to owners of expensive ones, Tax Assessor Keith Miller briefed county commissioners at their Oct. 18 meeting on a plan to increase the system’s accuracy.

The plan calls for the county to spend $844,000 over this fiscal year and the next. Actions include asking Buncombe residents to report improvements to their homes, buying software to double-check the valuations county staffers give to homes and reaching out to residents to help them understand how to challenge their property tax values, among other steps.

Commissioners did not vote on the plan but were generally supportive in their comments, tacitly giving staff the green light to move ahead. Board members also said they will discuss assessment issues again in a few weeks. The $512,000 in new spending the plan projects in the 2023-24 fiscal year is contingent on commissioners’ approval as part of adopting the next county budget.

Local research firm Urban3 had told commissioners last year that the county’s assessment system tends to give less expensive homes tax values close to their market value while assigning high-end homes values that are often much less than their actual worth, meaning the wealthy don’t pay as much as they should in property tax. The board appointed a citizens’ committee to look at the issue, and the plan Miller outlined Oct. 18 implements many of the recommendations that committee made in July, as well as some staff suggestions.

Miller and board Chair Brownie Newman said the assessment system appears to be fair if the county has good information on real estate. But bad data can skew the results, Miller said.

When a property is sold, that triggers a closer examination by county staff of the property’s attributes and value. Miller says about 60% of sales result in a change in the county’s information.

Improvements to the interior of homes that are not reported to the county are a source of many of the discrepancies, he said. The 10 county employees responsible for determining values are responsible for thousands of properties each, Miller explained: “Ninety-nine percent of the homes in the county, we will never go inside of.”

Differences in who challenges their property values also shift the tax burden, Miller said. Owners of expensive homes are more likely to appeal than are people who own more modest houses; appeals often result in a lower valuation for real estate.

Miller said he encourages people to appeal. “I would like to make that process as accessible as possible,” he said.

The county typically conducts a revaluation of real estate every four years. The citizens’ committee suggested increasing that frequency, but Miller opposed that idea, saying each revaluation costs the county about $1.4 million.

As outlined in a presentation available prior to the meeting, Miller also told commissioners the county had no legal authority to assign higher values to homes and apartments used for short-term rentals, such as Airbnbs and Vrbos, than to similar properties occupied by long-term residents.

Miller encouraged the commissioners to consider asking state legislators to exempt some of the value of owner-occupied homes from taxation, a step Newman said the board is likely to discuss later. The state’s current exemption is limited to low-income residents who are over 65 or disabled. A blanket exemption would give owners of inexpensive homes the greatest benefit on a percentage basis but would require the county to raise the overall tax rate if it wanted to keep total revenue from property taxes the same.

County considers center for older residents

Commissioners didn’t give a firm yes or no to a proposal to build an active aging center where services for older residents would be consolidated under one roof, with some saying Oct. 18 that the idea will be evaluated along with other building needs during the budget process for the 2023-24 fiscal year.

The 55,000-square-foot building would house county agencies, nonprofits and possibly a few for-profit businesses serving older people at a site at UNC Asheville. Services might include adult day care, congregate meals, a fitness center and a medical clinic.

The total cost was estimated last year at $26 million, and leaders of the effort want the county to commit to up to $10 million. The county would also own, operate and maintain the building.

Some commissioners wondered how much consolidation of services in one location makes sense.

“What I hear from some of the aging is they do not want to drive into Asheville,” Commissioner Terri Wells said. “They want services in their communities.”

Commissioner Al Whitesides, however, expressed no reservations. “I think we owe it to the senior population, and it would be a travesty for us to pass up this opportunity,” he said. “I don’t want to see us spare anything. I want to see us put the facility in place that will be the state of the art.”


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