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Wednesday, 28 September 2011 20:40

Housing market prompts revaluation scrutiny

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Macon County might postpone revaluating property — again — from 2013 to 2015, a remarkably different response to the crushingly bad housing market than Jackson County is taking.

Richard Lightner, longtime tax assessor for Macon County, said there simply hasn’t been enough property changing hands to set meaningful property values. And most importantly, he said, it would be difficult to set accurate values that Macon County could adequately defend from costly legal appeals. Property owners who disagree with a county’s revaluation have the legal right to challenge on a state level.

By waiting, more selling and buying will have taken place, though Lightner emphasized there’s no crystal ball he’s holding that allows him to read the future — and no guarantees that the market will be better then. Still, just by adding years to the process, one can safely assume some pieces of property will have sold, he said.

Macon and Jackson are similar on the tax fronts because of the communities of Highlands (in Macon) and Cashiers (in Jackson). Both communities are dominated by high-priced, multimillion-dollar homes, at least pre-recession prices. Those homeowners currently shoulder the bulk of the tax burdens in both counties. In Jackson County, by way of example, 57 percent of the tax base is located in just two townships: Cashiers and Hamburg, both in the southern end of the county.

Here is the key issue for taxpayers, the why-you-should-care, bottom-line point: Macon, by likely postponing a revaluation until 2015, would keep the tax burden predominantly on its higher-end residents in Highlands, and spare tax increases for the short term to the county at large. Jackson, by comparison, is looking still to do its revaluation in 2013, which means revaluated property, coupled with a revenue-neutral budget would, almost inevitably, shift the tax burden from the Cashiers area to the less-affluent areas of the county.

“It seemed that most of the pushback about delaying beyond 2013 came from taxpayers in the southern end of the county,” Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten said in explanation. “Property owners in the southern end could see larger declines in tax value while those in the northern end will see smaller declines, which could result in less taxes for the citizens in the southern end versus more taxes for the northern end.”

Revaluations in North Carolina must take place at least every eight years. Jackson County has the option of pushing back until 2016. Macon County must do its revaluation by 2015.

What’s not in question is what revaluation will mean for both counties: declining values when compared to the boom housing years. Jackson County did its last revaluation in 2008, and Macon County in 2007. Both counties opted to postpone revaluation past a four-year cycle, which they’d gone to because escalating land prices were causing sticker shock to taxpayers. This means Jackson County is using property values set in about 2007, and Macon County is using property values determined in 2006.

New values would mean “the $150,000 home on one acre would probably go up; undeveloped land and more expensive home will have a decrease,” Macon County Commissioner Kevin Corbin said in a recent meeting on the revaluation.

And that would shift the tax burden.

“I don’t have a problem with that per se,” said Macon Board Chairman Brian McClellan, who lives in Highlands and works as a financial advisor there. “If a big house loses value, they should get a tax break. My issue is, if we don’t have good comps, then we don’t want to be at risk defending a lot of revaluations we might not be able to defend.”

Corbin said that he does have some questions about whether Macon County should just go forward, like Jackson for now is set on doing, “and let the chips fall where they may.”

“When is our economy going to return? Maybe we are living in the new normal,” Corbin said.

Macon Commissioner Bobby Kuppers, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate and former commander of a submarine, said the board should be clear in the message it sends to the county’s citizens.

“I think we can say, with some degree of certainty, where those chips are going to fall,” Kuppers said. “If we do the revaluation (in 2013), we owe it to the people of this county to warn them, ‘Incoming Chips.’”

Lightner added, “Those people you see at the grocery store or getting their car fixed, the burden of the chips are going to fall on their laps.”

Commissioners Ron Haven and Ronnie Beale indicated they would support postponing the revaluation.

“The people this would hit the hardest are the very people who can least afford it,” Beale said.

A vote by commissioners is expected in Macon County next month.

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