“… will mass appraisal always have inherent issues? Yes. We’re working through those every day.” — Buncombe County Tax Assessor Keith Miller
A little over a year after Buncombe County’s Ad Hoc Reappraisal Committee presented recommendations to the Board of Commissioners about how to make the county’s property valuations more equitable, Tax Assessor Keith Miller says he is “very confident” that the changes he’s implemented will improve the process used in the next reappraisal in 2025.
“Does mass appraisal and will mass appraisal always have inherent issues? Yes. But we have now identified what many of those inherent issues are in our community, and now how do we break those down and deal with them? We’re working through those every day,” says Miller.
However, consultant Joe Minicozzi of Asheville-based Urban3, whose unsolicited, unpaid analysis was what prompted the commissioners to establish the reappraisal committee, says that those changes haven’t gone far enough and that the committee itself wasn’t given a sufficient opportunity to review his firm’s work. Minicozzi estimates that collectively, Urban3 volunteered about 300 hours of staff time to the project.
Presented to the county commissioners and tax assessment staff early in 2021, that analysis suggested that higher-valued properties tended to be underassessed and lower-valued properties overassessed, based on market value. Minicozzi maintains that this disproportionately affects historically Black neighborhoods.
Brownie Newman, chair of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, says that while he thinks the committee’s recommendations will greatly improve the overall reappraisal process, he’s disappointed that they didn’t directly address the fundamental question of whether those inequities exist.
Conflicts of interest?
Committee member Ori Baber, who worked for Urban3 at the time but is now an independent consultant, says that from the outset, county staff downplayed the firm’s conclusions during the committee’s discussions, starting with the hiring of consultant Syneva Economics to review the assessment data.
“In my opinion, [it was] not a good-faith effort at finding a consultant to do this work,” he says. “My personal sticking point is that Syneva had, at the time, no prior experience evaluating tax assessment disparities — no track record whatsoever.”
Tom Tveidt, president of Syneva Economics, doesn’t dispute that point. During his March 9, 2022, presentation to the committee, he said: “When we were first looking at this project I was kind of grumpy because, believe me, I don’t know anything about assessments at all, and I still don’t. I’m looking only at outcomes.” Tveidt’s Waynesville-based firm specializes in regional economic analysis of localized data, but not property tax assessments specifically.
In a recent interview with Xpress, Tveidt explained that his work for the county consisted of a simple sales ratio analysis. Such studies compare assessed values with market values. He then compared those results with county demographic data to determine if there were inequities in the system along racial and financial lines.
Tveidt says he found the sales ratio formula by researching industry standards online, and when he told the county it was pretty straightforward data that it probably already had, the response was that they “just wanted another outside source.”
In December 2021, county staffer Burnett Walz had told the reappraisal committee that Syneva would be providing an independent analysis. According to county procurement manager Ron Venturella, state law does not require that bids be solicited for service contracts. Nonetheless, the county subsequently changed course and decided to issue a request for proposals.
Three bids were submitted, and Syneva was ultimately selected once again, after receiving higher marks than the Asheville-based Urban3 in grading by both Walz and Miller. Walz explained that Syneva was able to meet multiple times during the specified 10-week timeline for the work and was “a little more on target” with the final product criteria.
But Baber maintains that Miller’s involvement was a conflict of interest since the appraisal process that he oversees is precisely what was being reviewed.
Baber also says Syneva’s analysis, which found a far lower level of possible inequities than Urban3 had, was problematic because of its approach to the data.
For starters, he takes issue with the way each firm acquired the data used in its analysis. Tveidt says the county gave it to him after “taking out a few exceptions.” He says he’s not sure what those exceptions were, but he didn’t think they would affect the results. Conversely, Urban3 downloaded the data from the county’s online portal, says Baber.
To conduct its analysis, Syneva divided the county into 27 “geographies,” areas larger than the 65 tracts used in the 2020 census. The larger the geographies used, the harder it is to identify trends in the data, says Baber.
In Syneva’s report, for example, the historically Black Shiloh neighborhood is spread across multiple geographies, making it hard to identify trends related to property values there. Tveidt says that in working with Miller to define the boundaries of chosen geographies, they tried to choose neighborhoods that people were familiar with to make the report easier to understand.
Baber, however, cites a 2022 analysis of Buncombe County’s reappraisal system by professor Christopher Berry of the University of Chicago’s Center for Municipal Finance. Baber says the study, which used census tracts rather than geographies and reached conclusions similar to Urban3’s, was never officially shared with the committee.
In addition, says Baber, the Syneva report is based on the premise that the county’s computer-assisted mass appraisal system is working with complete and accurate data. Urban3’s analysis, on the other hand, shows what happens with the inaccurate data the system actually gets, due in part to incomplete reporting by property owners.
Tveidt acknowledges that there may be some validity to that argument but says he was hired just to conduct a sales ratio analysis using data the county provided and compare the results with demographic data.
“What the county and [Syneva] have shown us tells a completely different story than Urban3. Who has more credibility?” — Ad Hoc Reappraisal Committee member Jonathan Hunter
The appeals process enables taxpayers unhappy with their appraisal to submit information that might lead to a more accurate result, but Baber argues that the process favors wealthier homeowners who have more time and resources to devote to filing appeals.
One of the committee’s recommendations was that the county increase efforts to educate residents about the appeals process, and Miller says he’s reached out through several channels in an attempt to close that gap.
Urban3’s work was presented to the committee on April 20, more than seven weeks after Newman emailed committee members urging them to hear the firm’s concerns.
“I was very surprised that they were having difficulty getting some airtime in front of the committee,” Newman told Xpress. “They have a valuable perspective and should be heard, so I certainly advocated for them to be heard.” The Board of Commissioners chair went on to say that, from his perspective, some committee members had acted “pretty defensively around my encouragement.”
The delay frustrated Baber and Minicozzi, who say the committee should have heard the presentation much sooner. The contentious April meeting included several heated exchanges between Minicozzi and Miller, and in its wake, the committee was left with conflicting analyses of the same data.
The confusion came to a head during the committee’s May 4 meeting. Committee member Jonathan Hunter, a local real estate agent who also serves on the Board of Equalization and Review, said the group had reached “a fork in the road. … Data is data. What the county and [Syneva] have shown us tells a completely different story than Urban3. Who has more credibility?” he asked his fellow members.
Reaching out to residents
After two more meetings hashing out potential recommendations, the committee finally reached consensus on June 14 and presented its findings to the commissioners on July 18.
Committee member DeWayne McAfee says he’s proud of the recommendations the panel made, particularly the ones calling for increased outreach to the Black community concerning the appraisal and appeals processes.
Miller says he’s made diverse efforts to implement most of the committee’s recommendations, including partnering with the Land of Sky Association of REALTORS and the Buncombe County Bar Association and holding educational sessions in various neighborhoods to help residents learn how to submit an appeal and improve their access to county tax personnel.
“I believe these efforts have started to make an impact, and we are seeing and hearing more residents empowered with the information they need. Our hope is to continue the appeal clinics on a yearly basis for the foreseeable future,” Miller explains. “Knowing the history of redlining and inequity of property rights and values in some of our historic neighborhoods, we will continue to prioritize outreach to these residents.”
Additionally, the Tax Department is working on redrawing the “neighborhood market areas” that help appraisers identify comparable properties. The update, he says, aims to more accurately represent market conditions.
Miller has also added an automated valuation tool, which reassesses all single-family residential property nightly, creating estimates appraisers can use to audit assessed values. Another new tool is MyValueBC, an app that enables people to access the property record portal on a smartphone.
Newman, meanwhile, says that a lot of good recommendations came out of the committee, and the attention on the issue has forced the department to think seriously about how its appraisals are conducted. “I’m confident there’s going to be a better process going forward,” he says.
Time will tell
The lone committee recommendation that Miller hasn’t endorsed is to perform reappraisals more frequently. The state requires counties to reappraise property at least once every eight years, but most, like Buncombe, operate on a four-year schedule.
Miller thinks the improvements he’s made to the system may prove to be sufficient, though he expects to revisit the question after the next assessment is completed. Last October, he calculated that reappraising twice as often would cost roughly $1.2 million every two years, plus funds for additional staff to handle the increased workload.
“I do feel more confident that you are going to find in January 2025 that these concerns will be handled and they’re going to go away,” Miller told the commissioners during an Aug. 15 briefing.
Committee member McAfee, however, says he’s willing to reevaluate the Tax Department’s efforts at any time, whether it’s before or after the next reappraisal.
Newman, however, questions whether more frequent reappraisals would be worth the additional cost of conducting them. “We don’t want to be burdening our residents, who could pay higher taxes than they need to pay,” he says. “I, for one, just want us to get to this next revaluation process and make sure we’re getting it done really well.”
Minicozzi maintains that the increased tax revenue the county would receive if higher-value homes were more accurately assessed would more than make up for the cost of more frequent appraisals. He believes the county needs to more clearly acknowledge the issues his analysis has uncovered, and he sees no need to wait until 2025 to consider further changes to the process.
Miller counters, “Regardless of what critics may think, this is a complex task for a small staff of appraisers. Our team is focused on continuous improvement, and we appreciate the attention that’s been brought to the property assessment process. By working closely with the community, we have the privilege to serve, we’ll be partners in this process for the betterment of all involved.”
This story was updated Sept. 12 to reflect the Tax Assessor Keith Miller partnered with the Land of Sky Association of REALTORS to provide the community educational sessions about the property tax assessment process.