“Getting to revenue-neutral probably is not realistic, as much as I’d love to do that.” — Commission Chair Brownie Newman
“When you look at 2018, I don’t believe we can lower [the property tax rate] to revenue-neutral and fund requests related to core services.” — County Manager Wanda Greene
The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners did not take any official action on the proposed budget during a nearly five-hour meeting Tuesday, June 6. However, the property tax rate picture became a bit clearer as talks revealed that achieving a revenue-neutral rate is likely not in the cards.
The meeting opened with nearly two hours of open public comment as about 50 people waited to speak their mind on various issues like climate change and development concerns. A large number of people speaking were representing nonprofits that potentially stand to be beneficiaries of community funding grants or receive money via contracted services.
Robin Merrell, with Pisgah Legal Services, explained that some previous donors would not be contributing because of various reasons. She noted that county support is paramount: “We may lose $550,000 in funding from other sources. We have laid off one staff member, we may have to lay off more. We can’t afford to lose our funding from you.”
“We can solve food insecurity. The investment you have made has made a difference,” explained MANNA FoodBank’s Katy German.
However, not everyone was looking to ask for money as Carl Mumpower, chairman of the Buncombe County Republican Party, asked commissioners to be careful with taxpayer dollars. He said the county’s growth is a blessing and a concern and asked commissioners to “take advantage of the recent property revaluation by not adding an additional tax burden.”
“There are 45,000 Republicans I represent tonight who would appreciate that,” he noted.
To that end, this year’s property revaluation shows that the county’s property tax base now stands at about $31.5 billion. That’s up by $6.8 billion, a 28 percent increase from the county’s 2013 assessment, which valued taxable property at $24.7 billion.
At this rate
The proposed budget for fiscal year 2018, starting July 1, is $419,289,728. That dollar amount is an increase of $5.7 million, or 1.4 percent, over the current budget. It has a property tax rate of 55.9 cents per $100 of valued property, or $1,118 for a home valued at $200,000. A revenue-neutral rate would be 51.3 cents, and would equal a $1,026 bill for a home valued at $200,000.
“I’ve heard very clearly that we need to bring that rate down,” said County Manager Wanda Greene in reference to the 55.9 rate.
County resident Roy Harrison said that rate affects his long-term plans. “I have a concern, and it is that I’m retired. … Am I going to stay in Buncombe County? That’s one question I’m asking. Can I afford to stay in Buncombe County?” he pondered.
“These budget considerations have a great effect on me, people of my age, people of color … as we go forward, I’ll be watching.”
Commissioner Robert Pressley said he wished the property tax rate could go as low as 50 cents. “Most commissioners know my big concern is what we are going to do with elderly. A lot own their property but don’t actually own it because they are making [tax] payments every year,” he lamented.
Greene then said she doesn’t believe revenue-neutral is possible while maintaining a required level of funding in core services. She also went on to urge commissioners to work with the N.C. General Assembly to raise the property tax exemption rate for the elderly population. Greene said the current required income level of around $29,000 for those exemptions does not reflect the reality of living in Buncombe County. “It’s time to take a look at that. It’s been about 10 years since we got that exemption,” she noted, adding that she thinks the income requirement could definitely be increased.
Commissioner Joe Belcher addressed the multitude of funding requests. “There are those that have come here tonight that are passionate about things; it doesn’t mean those will be funded at the level requested,” he explained. “The need is great, and the requests are multiplying year after year. We have to make decisions and say where we are comfortable with the tax rate.”
Commissioner Chair Brownie Newman said he wants the rate below 55.9 cents. “The question is how low can we go while doing the things we want to do. We also need to look into the future and set a tax rate as low as we can go, but one that is sustainable and that preserves the triple-A bond rating,” he said.
“Getting to revenue-neutral probably is not realistic, as much as I’d love to do that.”
Commissioners are set to discuss and approve the budget at their next meeting Tuesday, June 20.
For more information about the budget process, see Xpress‘ previous coverage below:
- Overview of nearly $11 million requested by nonprofits
- Budget talks spark old beef, new tax rate discussion
- Schools may be key to property tax relief
- County nonprofit funding at odds with resolution guidelines