Monkey Business Report: Property valuations, property taxes, and transparency

monkeySomething I learned long ago:  politicians don’t like giving our money back.  Local politicians can claim that they’ve held the line on property tax rates.  (It chafes me, BIG TIME, to have to pay the government for the “privilege” of owning something I’ve purchased for myself with my hard-earned money.  But that’s another story.) Then, they monkey around with the value of your real property.  Hold the property tax rate at 50 cents on the dollar.  Run a property valuation that knocks everyone’s property value up 20 to 30 percent — say, from $100,000 to $130,000.  The politicians end up looking like fiscal conservatives and tightwads while they’re really bleeding more money out of your wallet. 

We posted earlier about hijinks surrounding a terribly screwed up property revaluation in Mecklenburg County that — in order to correct it — risked throwing the county into the red.  We’ve heard about some recent property tax developments in Haywood County — out in western North Carolina — that has taxpayers seeing red

There are several important issues playing out in the lawsuit between Haywood County and residents Debbie and Denny King. In what has now become quite a controversial tax case, the Kings are still fighting the county with regard to the 2011 revaluation of their property and therefore their 2011 property taxes.

The Kings, residents of the Beaverdam area in Canton, found their property tax rate for 2011 unusually high. Because the county had assessed their property at 130% of its actual worth, they took their case to the North Carolina Tax Commission in Raleigh for a reconsideration of their tax rate. The Tax Commission’s response was that the Kings “did present evidence tending to show that [the] county tax supervisor used an arbitrary method of valuation; and that the county’s assessments substantially exceeded true value money of the property.”

However, the Haywood County Board of Commissioners appealed the ruling of the NC Tax Commission to the NC Court of Appeals. Both The Mountaineer and The Smoky Mountain News have reported that the Court of Appeals sided with the county because the NC Tax Commission failed to produce enough evidence to support the change in valuation from $210,000 to $172,000. However, this is a misrepresentation of where the lawsuit rests at this time, since the appellate court merely asked for clarification before ruling. Denny King, in his public comment to the Haywood County Board of Commissioners on August 18, argued that “the North Carolina Court of Appeals has sent the case back to the Property Tax Commission to articulate its decision. This case is not settled.”

According to the Kings, they are not the only home owners who have suffered from this kind of upward revaluation of their property. In fact, Mr. King was told that there were “well over 1000 people that signed the petitions opposing the revaluation in 2011.” He said that “several homeowners in my neighborhood and other areas appealed their property to the County Board of Equalization.” However, the Board of Commissioners has denied this claim. According to The Mountaineer, the position of the board was that “the 2011 revaluation process had been one of the least contested revaluations they could remember,” because “only 3 percent of the property owners in the county appealed the values established through the mass appraisal process, a number exceedingly low compared to past revaluation years.”biggovt

Part of the problem here is the county’s system for analyzing property tax rates. Haywood County’swebsite states that for 2011 “the Haywood County real property appraisal staff began using neighborhood delineation as part of the revaluation process to help analyze sales data in individual neighborhoods. Over 940 neighborhoods were created for residential, commercial and industrial properties.” Now there are as many 1000 such neighborhoods, all given a valuation for tax rates in what Becky Johnson at the Smoky Mountain News has called an “imperfect science.”

Each neighborhood in Haywood County was given a market value in 2011 for determining tax rates. Denny King has stated that, “the reason I appealed was due to the neighborhood delineation market factor that increased my house value 30%.” This means his entire neighborhood was valued at 130% of its real market value, and taxed at that rate.

When the Kings first started making noise about this issue, the maps used in the process were pulled from the county web site.  Taxpayers who wanted to obtain a hard copy of the map affecting their property were required by county officials to pay $216 up-front.  MORE: 

[…]  Despite multiple requests to have them placed back online, according to the Haywood County Public Information Officer David Teague, there is no plan to do so. At the Board of Commissioner’s meeting as recently as August 18, tax payer Eddie Cabe gave a public comment where he repeated previous requests for the neighborhood delineation maps to be put back online. The Tax Administrator/Collector/Assessor David Francis responded to his request saying that no one ever used those maps, and they could just as easily use the FEMA flood maps that were available through the federal website. These tax maps were removed from the county’s website, according to both David Francis and David Teague, because there was just not enough space on the county server for all 1000 of the maps once the 2012 maps depicting the flood hazard areas were added to the county’s website.

Not enough server space.  The government can’t afford additional server space? MORE: 


Most important here however, is not the removal of the maps from the county’s website, but the restricted access to the maps even as copies. According to current county policy, not only are citizens now required to pay the $216 fee for a copy of a single map, which means they must pay again in order to make comparisons, but are also being asked to sign a form specifying the reason for obtaining a map, and indicating that the information cannot be shared without written consent of the county. This is in stark contrast with General Statute 132-1 (b) which states:

The public records and public information compiled by the agencies of North Carolina government or its subdivisions are the property of the people. Therefore, it is the policy of this State that the people may obtain copies of their public records and public information free or at minimal cost unless otherwise specifically provided by law. As used herein, “minimal cost” shall mean the actual cost of reproducing the public record or public information. (1935, c. 265, s. 1; 1975, c. 787, s. 1; 1995, c. 388, s. 1.)


So, it costs Haywood County $216 per copy to reproduce these maps? (Perhaps they need to re-examine their choice of printers / copiers.)  And, unless you’ve bought property and built something on it, who among us has honestly seen property value increases in this economy?