For months we’ve endured city and county residents’ competing calls for tax equity (or perhaps I should say “county-only residents,” since city residents also live in Buncombe County). The continuing water negotiations are partly about core issues—who owns the system, who fixes it and such—and partly about what Council member Carl Mumpower calls “decoy issues” (such as the Civic Center, McCormick Field and the Municipal Golf Course). These items enter the Water Agreement equation as ad hoc pawns in a giant chess game involving the city, county and state.
Every time City Council seeks to involuntarily annex a portion of the county, the resulting uproar stems in part from the fact that being taken into the city doubles your taxes without anywhere near doubling the services you get. So folks build as close to the city as possible, getting most of the advantages of living in Asheville without having to pay the extra taxes. Some call them freeloaders; others think they’re smart. And every year they stay out of the city is a year with only half the tax burden.
What a mess, you say! Surely there must be a way to achieve tax equity between city and county that enables the water negotiations to focus solely on water. Surely there must be a solution that lets annexation proceed when it’s beneficial to both parties.
Let’s think outside the box—or at least, let us rummage around in as many boxes as we can to find a better way to furnish services to city and county residents that are commensurate with the taxes they pay.
One solution would be to merge the city and the county. Much bureaucracy would be eliminated, so the total cost of local government—and, presumably, your tax bill—would shrink. That would be a good thing. But county-only residents would complain, with some justification, that they don’t need sidewalks as much as city residents. Surely county-only residents don’t need to be paying for greenways. One might conclude that it really is appropriate for county-only residents to have a smaller tax bill than city residents with property of the same value.
A second solution, which worked quite well in the county where we lived for many years (a little north of here, but still south of the Mason-Dixon Line), is having two county property-tax rates—one for county-only residents and a lower one for county residents who also live (and pay taxes) in one of Buncombe’s several municipalities.
In our previous life, we lived in the county and liked it that way. But if we’d been in the city, we would have gotten water (no well), sewer (no septic tank to maintain), trash pickup (no contracted service) and more. And if we’d been annexed, the higher taxes would clearly have been offset by these expanded services.
The reverse is also true, however: City residents don’t need the Sheriff’s Department and other county-specific or duplicated services. So why not give county residents who also live in a municipality a discount on the county portion of their property taxes? The municipalities and the county could hammer out the exact figure (maybe 25 percent?), but it would be a clearer, simpler way to achieve a measure of tax equity than the endless rounds of horse-trading we get now.
It would also give those who pay both a municipality and a county tax some official recognition, perhaps reminding their lawmakers—city, county and state—that we help elect them all, and we want equity!
I have no doubt that such a change would require going to our legislators in Raleigh hat in hand, for they have inordinate power over many aspects of life in North Carolina. But needing to have a law or two changed should not discourage the requisite dialogue. Let’s get on with it!
[George Keller is chairman of the Asheville Civic Center Commission, an adjunct professor of physics at UNCA, active in local politics, and an advocate for downtown Asheville.]