On Feb. 1, the county will mail out the numbers it’s been working to calculate for the past four years, the first time new values have been assigned since 2008, just before the bottom dropped out of the real estate market. Overall, the property tax base in Jackson County will be likely more than 20 percent less in the coming budget year than it is right now.
That’s not to say that values will drop 20 percent across the board. Change in value depends on the location of the home or property and individual characteristics. Generally speaking, prices for high-end homes have dropped the most since 2008, with values for more modest homes seeing less fluctuation.
Mountain Township, located north of Highlands near the Macon County line, saw the biggest decline, losing 44.6 percent of its value. That’s largely because of a platted subdivision with more than 100 lots that, at the height of the boom, were valued near $375,000 each — now they’re worth more like $5,000. Values in Caney Fork, Savannah, Qualla and Barkers Creek were the next high-water mark, with drops in value there hovering around 24 percent. Homes located in municipalities saw the least change, with values inside Sylva town limits declining just around 6.5 percent and values in Dillsboro actually increasing slightly, by about 7 percent.
However, said Jackson’s tax administrator Bobby McMahan, it’s important not to read too much into the fluctuations of smaller areas like Dillsboro and Caney Fork, which have only 163 and 814 parcels, respectively. The remaining townships in the county have between 1,102 and 6,668 parcels.
“One or two (sales) can make a difference there,” McMahan said of smaller areas like Dillsboro — results in those areas are more easily skewed.
Though nothing has been decided yet, commissioners have voiced general agreement that the county should hike the tax rate enough to keep revenue the same as it was pre-revaluation. If the current tax rate of 28 cents per $100 of value increased by 20 percent, it would sit at 33.6 cents. That change would move Jackson County from having the lowest property tax rate in the state to the third-lowest, behind Carteret and Watauga counties.
However, McMahan said, it’s still way too early to guesstimate what the new tax rate might be. The tax department is still working out some kinks with the new values, and variables like sales tax revenue, changes in county debt and taxes on property other than real estate are yet to be pinned down.
“There’s still a lot of missing pieces to that equation,” McMahan said.
The newly issued property values are not set in stone. If there’s a problem, owners have until March 1 to come by the tax administration office to plead their case.
“We’re going to make some errors, we’re going to make some mistakes,” McMahan said. “We have 40,000 parcels. You’re going to put something in the wrong field, and those are real easy to fix.”
If some physical characteristic of the land or building is incorrect on the mailed notice, or if the value just appears too high, owners can come by the tax office and find an employee to consider their argument. However, McMahan emphasized, the in-person part of the procedure is key. The tax department won’t handle cases over phone or email.
When weighing the cost-benefit of contesting, McMahan added, it’s important to calculate how much you might save if you win. Even at a 40-cent tax rate, a $5,000 difference in property value equates to just $20 annually on a tax bill.
“If it was me, I’d want it to be a substantial amount — $20,000, $40,000, $100,000 — before you make that effort,” McMahan said.
After the informal appeal period ends, owners will have another chance to get their assessed values changed by requesting a hearing from the Jackson County Board of Equalization.
Going forward, it’s possible Jackson County will resume conducting revaluations more frequently than the state’s legal maximum of eight years. Typically, values increase with time, and it takes less work per revaluation if they’re done more frequently. But commissioners agree that it’s a good thing, as far as county budget is concerned, that they waited as long as possible to get this one done. Things are undeniably more depressed than they were before the recession hit, but it’s getting better.
“We are seeing, not a lot, but some small growth in the tax base,” said Commission Chairman Brian McMahan. “There are some sales happening, there is some building going on. There is some small growth, and we’re making our way in the right direction.”
The revaluation timeline
• Feb 1: Notices of new tax values will go in the mail. Landowners who feel there is something wrong with the value have one month to come to the tax office to state their case. Otherwise, no action is required.
• March 1: The informal appeal period ends. Decisions on reviews requested during the informal appeal period will be made within six to eight weeks.
• April/May: Hearings before the Jackson County Board of Equalization begin. Landowners who are unhappy with the outcome of the informal appeal can go through this process. Decisions will be made within 30 days of the hearing. The Property Tax Commission in Raleigh is the last option for people still unhappy with the outcome.
• August: Bills with final property tax values will be mailed.