An angry crowd accused Haywood County commissioners this week of unfairly slapping some property owners with higher values while letting others off the hook in the recent countywide appraisal.
About 50 people turned out at the commissioners meeting Monday to complain that appraisers had botched up when assessing their properties. At best, they blamed commissioners for being complicit in an erroneous property revaluation — and at worst for being part of a conspiracy to target certain property owners with deliberately inflated values.
Commissioner Mark Swanger explained that commissioners don’t have a role in revaluation. Revaluation is conducted by appraisers, who examine the prevailing real estate market to arrive at new property values.
Since property values determine how much you pay in property taxes, the biggest fear from the audience was that their taxes would go up as a result of higher property values.
“There are people who don’t have extra money in their pocket to keep on donating to taxes,” said Horace Edwards of Cruso, who helped organize the turnout.
Generally real estate increases in value a little every year. But given the depressed market, many homes have stagnated in value and others have even gone down.
Yet half the property owners in the county saw an increase in value since the last countywide appraisal five years ago. And that’s what Jonnie Cure said she doesn’t understand. How could anyone’s have gone up?
“What has happened in Haywood County? I simply don’t get it. It is truly incredible,” Cure said.
Yvonne Mazet, who lives in a single-wide trailer, said she can hardly afford her taxes now, let alone now that her property values have gone up.
“I don’t feel my taxes should have gone up,” Mazet said. “I don’t think in this economic era we are using our heads very well. I think this is a very bad choice to re-evaluate our property.”
Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick said the purpose of a revaluation is not to force higher taxes on anyone.
“Our goal in this process is not to raise people’s taxes. It is to make sure the values are fair when we apply the tax rate,” Kirkpatrick said.
Edwards said it isn’t fair that more expensive homes have dropped in value, while lower or median priced ones increased. Edwards implored commissioners to use the weight of their office to “take some action and fix it.”
But the county is required to base values on comparable sales of similar property.
If expensive homes aren’t selling for as much as they used to, the county appraisers had no choice but to decrease the value of those homes to reflect selling prices the real world.
“We cannot choose to violate the law. That is not an option for us,” Swanger said.
Denny King questioned whether the appraisers accurately pegged market values, however.
“The real test for appraisals is if you put the property up for sale would they sell within a reasonable amount of time for the appraised value?” asked King, who ran for county commissioner as a Tea Party supporter last fall but lost.
Justin Hensley said he never saw an appraiser.
“No one came to our house. I don’t know how they came up with these numbers. You can’t fly over in an airplane and come up with this stuff. It is really unfair and it is totally unaccurate,” Hensley said.
Appraisers indeed visited each parcel, but they do not come inside and usually don’t get out of the car.
In Haywood County, it has been five years since the last revaluation. Counties are required to do one at least every eight. Some speakers questioned why the county didn’t wait another three years.
Jack Wadham said large numbers of people might refuse to pay their property taxes and sue the county over the revaluation. As long as the lawsuit was pending, they wouldn’t have to pay, he said, and the county would go broke waiting to collect taxes.
“That is not a threat. That is just telling you what could really happen,” Wadham said.
The crowd applauded after most of the speakers, occasionally offering up a standing ovation, but did not get unruly.
When public comment concluded, commissioners started to respond to the crowd’s concerns, but the audience got up and walked out, at first one by one, then en masse, in an obvious flout to the commissioners’ attempts to explain the revaluation.
Several in the audience told commissioners the revaluation would cost them their seats in the next election.
“It was kind of convenient that you did not do this on an election year,” said Cure. “I am sure you are hoping we forget you did it by 2012.”
Swanger repeatedly urged those who complained about their property values to appeal. The first step is to make an appointment with the county’s property appraisal office. The appraisers will share how they arrived at the property value, generally by citing the price fetched by similar property that was sold. The property owner can then explain why they believe the value is wrong.
David Francis, head of the county tax department, said the appeal process works. He shared an example from one property owner who has utility lines on their property that would hurt its selling price. The county appraiser agreed and adjusted the value accordingly.
“I know there is a lot of frustration out there. Give us a chance to sit down and explain it to you,” Francis said.
What is property revaluation?
In North Carolina, counties are required to conduct a mass appraisal of real estate at least every eight years. Property taxes are based on property values.
The reval is intended to level the playing field, bringing the county’s assessed value of a particular property in line with the true market value so everyone is paying a fair share come tax day.
In Haywood County, the total value of all property remained flat. If you add it all up — the value of every home, lot and tract of land — it amounts to $6.791 billion, an increase of less than one percent over last year’s total value of $6.787 billion. Roughly half the property owners saw their values go up, while half saw their values go down.
When property goes up across the board in a revaluation, the county typically lowers the tax rate to offset what would otherwise be an increase in property taxes. This time, since there was no net gain in the property tax base, the tax rate will likely remain about the same, and whether your individual taxes go up or down will likely depend on how your property values performed.