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Wednesday, 07 May 2014 13:55

Quid pro quo, or just due?

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Cashiers area property owners have long complained that they pay more than their fair share when it comes to property taxes — ponying up 60 percent of the county’s total property taxes.

They claim they get little in return for what they pay in. They use few services: they don’t have many kids in public schools, they don’t use social services, they aren’t committing crimes.

That claim is exacerbated if you consider this fact: about 75 percent of the houses in Cashiers aren’t occupied by year-round residents, according to 2010 Census statistics.

That poses a quandary for county government. Should services and amenities be doled out according to population needs, or by the property tax pay-in of one area compared to another?

“I think you have to look at both. Probably population would drive it more than anything,” County Manager Chuck Wooten said.

To get a better handle on the property tax landscape, Wooten engaged an intern from Western Carolina University last semester to conduct an analysis of exactly who was paying what, quantifying just how much the Cashiers area pays in.

Despite contributing more than half of the county’ total property tax collections, the area hardly accounts for half the county’s population — it’s more like 10 percent, when counting up full-time, year-round permanent residents.

County commissioners have funded some big ticket capital projects in Cashiers in recent years, and while it may help appease property owners there, residents elsewhere in the county have questioned those expenses.

The projects include: 

• Constructing a new recreation center for $7.97 million. 

• For a cost of $1.135 million the county constructed new dressing rooms and weight rooms at Blue Ridge School.

• Jackson County renovated the house formerly occupied by Southwestern Community College and is using it as a senior center and sheriff annex. This project cost $272,000.

Wooten said government should not provide extra perks and amenities for wealthy citizens simply because they are wealthy and pay more in taxes. The role of government is to serve society, and all citizens, equally rather than offering favoritism to the wealthy who pay more in taxes.

Wooten defended the recent projects in Cashiers as all warranted, however. If anything, Cashiers had been getting short changed all these year and not getting its due, Wooten said.

“I think the investments we are making in the southern end of the county are appropriate,” Wooten said. “We get comments from up there saying, ‘It is about time.’ When 60 percent of the county’s revenue is coming out of a particular district, you should look at the services that are or aren’t being provided.”

The county isn’t intentionally bilking Cashiers property owners for more than their fair share, however. It’s simply an unavoidable side-effect of the high-end real estate values there. Property taxes are calculated based on property values. The luxury homes, golf resorts and gated second-home developments drive up the market value of property in Cashiers, and thus lead to higher property taxes.

“The southern end of the county has a disproportionate share of our value,” Wooten said.

But Cashiers area property owners may soon get some relief. A countywide property revaluation will hit the books in 2016, readjusting the property values on the county’s tax books with the real-life real estate market. The values on the tax rolls today harkens back to 2008 — the peak of the real estate market.

The high-end homes and property in the greater Cashiers area have fallen substantially in recent years, however, and the revaluation coming in 2016 will reflect that.

At a recent community forum in Cashiers, where Wooten was invited to talk shop with plateau residents about issues facing the county, Wooten kicked the engagement off with some red meat: revaluations. It was an issue he described as “something a lot of people are interested in” and a process that could “get a county manager fired every eight years.”

“Let’s face it, there’s going to be winners and losers,” Wooten said. “That’s the dilemma we face. That’s the 800-pound gorilla in the room that we have to deal with in 2016.”

While property values will come down — particularly in Cashiers — that doesn’t mean property taxes will come down accordingly.

With property values falling, the tax rate will have to increase in order to offset what would otherwise be a substantial hit to county coffers. It’s the first time the county has seen property values come down over time, instead of increasing year over year.

“In all likelihood we’re in a situation we’ve never seen before,” Wooten said. 

The county manager pointed out, however, that Jackson’s property tax rate of 28 cents per $100 is currently the second lowest in the state. 

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