“We did this year,” said Macon County Manager Jack Horton. “But I think Jackson County is right close to us.”
And Horton is more or less right — at least by 1/10th of a penny.
According to a report from the N.C. Department of Revenue, Macon ranks at the very bottom — or very top depending how you look at it — for property tax rates. Macon sits at 27.9 cents per $100 of property value. Jackson is a measly one-tenth of a cent higher, at 28 cents.
Horton claims Macon chose its tax rate of 27.9 cents by coincidence. The fact that is a mere tenth of a cent lower than Jackson has absolutely nothing to do with the ongoing rivalry between the two counties for the claim to fame of having the lowest property tax rate in the state.
But it nonetheless kept Macon in the top spot, years running, and was proof enough for Horton that his county knows how to manage its budget.
“It is a distinction having the lowest,” Horton said. “Our goal wasn’t to have the lowest tax rate in the state; it just turned out that way.”
Several years ago, Macon’s tax rate was even lower, 3.4 cents lower to be exact. But the county enacted a couple of property tax hikes to pay for school construction.
And going back decades, Horton said he remembers reading a newspaper report in the 1970s while living in Swain County that said Macon had the lowest tax rate in the state. However, the exact streak is hard to pin down, especially if you throw a little bit of contention into the mix.
“Macon County likes to claim they have the lowest tax rate,” said Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten. “But if you add their fire tax to the countywide tax, they have it higher than Jackson County.”
What Wooten likes to point out is that about 1.4 cents of Jackson’s property tax rate funds fire departments. In Macon County, each fire department has its own tax, on top of the base property tax rate.
The fire tax in Macon ranges from .9 cents in Highlands to an additional 8 cents in Cowee. Those numbers don’t appear in the countywide tax rate. If they did, Jackson would in fact be lower, Wooten points out.
The playing field could soon be leveled. Jackson plans to quit funding fire departments from the county budget and instead make each fire departments have its own fire tax. If that happens, Macon’s title might be stripped based on a technicality.
How important is beating out your neighboring county for fractions of a penny? Jackson County Commissioner Doug Cody said it might not actually be that big of a deal. But, for the record, proper recognition for his county would only be fair.
“We do have the lowest tax rate in the state of North Carolina,” Cody said. “If you figure everything in.”
But the title is the title, asterisk or not, according to one Macon County commissioner.
“I think in reality Jackson County is actually lower than Macon County,” said Macon County Commissioner James Tate. “But technically, for now, we are winning.”
Tate pointed out that what residents in each county actually pay differs by only $10 or so on an modest home. But when it comes to the expensive homes found in his district in Highlands, those small rates can start to accumulate.
“There’s not a whole lot of difference,” Tate said of the difference in the tax rates. “But it can add up on a $1 million home.”
There’s a secret to Macon and Jackson’s low tax rates — which are three times lower than some of the highest counties in the state. It’s all the expensive, high-valued homes and property in Highlands and Cashiers, which lie in Macon and Jackson respectively.
With a slew of multi-million homes on its tax rolls, a low tax rate can still bring in big bucks.
The friendly property tax feud will probably rage on for years to come between the two counties, but the question remains: would anybody choosing between Cashiers or Highlands to buy a home really be concerned about the incremental differences in taxes?
According to Jackson County Commissioner Charles Elders, they’re more fixated on other things, including the good climate, expansive views and low crime.
“I believe it’s the other factors that catches the eye of people,” Elders said. “They want out of the big city life, and they like the atmosphere of the good, clean mountain living.”