Haywood County commissioners continue to be dogged by outcries over new property values.
Critics are openly deriding commissioners at every county meeting. They’ve circulated petitions, garnering hundreds of signatures from people who think the county has pegged their property values too high. They’ve held a few citizens meetings around the county to rant about it. Someone even took out a newspaper ad urging everyone to file an appeal over their new property values.
Critics have proffered varying conspiracy theories over revaluation, claiming that the county knowingly and artificially inflated the value of some property as a money grab to boost property tax collections.
One theory suggests the county, run by Democrats, appraised property higher in the Republican-stronghold of Bethel and Cruso to stick them with higher taxes.
The most common theory, however, is that the county is somehow in cahoots with wealthier homeowners and lowered their property values so they wouldn’t have to pay as much in taxes, while hiking the values on lower to median priced homes.
Indeed, higher-priced homes have seen their values fall. And lower- to median-priced homes held their value and went up, as a trend.
But that’s merely a reflection of sales in the market place — not a formula invented by the county’s appraisers, according to David Francis, the head of the county tax department.
“We have no control over the market,” Francis said.
No more so than the weatherman decides what the weather will be.
But, the disgruntled property owners point to the depressed economy and flagging real estate market.
SEE ALSO: How right is the reval?
“The prices are going down and down and down,” said Jonnie Cure, a watchdog for county government. “We are glutted with houses for sale. So when you have a huge supply and very low demand you obviously are going to have a reduction in the price in homes.”
But in fact, property values in Haywood County have not dropped as much as people think, according to Francis. Compared to five years ago, property on average is about the same, although some properties have gone up and others have gone down.
At stake? How much you pay in property taxes hinges on your property’s value. The county recently reassessed every home and tract of land, bringing the book value in line with actual market value. The revaluations are required periodically by the state to ensure everyone pays their fair share of property taxes.
As for the lower- to median-priced homes going up, they held their value because there was more demand for homes in that price range. Conversely, sales at the upper end stagnated, Francis said.
Francis has bowed up over the conspiracy theories that the county was sinister in giving upper-end homeowners a break.
“I was trying to do the best job I could for my fellow citizens. I grew up here, my children go to school here. It was important for me to make this right,” Francis said.
At a county commissioner meeting two weeks ago, the repeated criticism and conspiracy theories proved too much and Francis shot back after particularly insulting comments by Monroe Miller, the county’s chief critic who even has a web site dedicated to his fulltime hobby of attacking county government officials.
“Mr. Miller has insinuated I have artificially propped up the numbers on behalf of the county. That is asinine, insidious and blatantly ignorant,” Francis said. “I would never do anything like that I don’t appreciate that. I would never do anything to undermine the taxpayers of Haywood County.”
SEE ALSO: Sales keep pace with county's new values
Commissioners have grown used to the public chastising and being dogged by a dedicated group of government watchdogs. Commissioners usually keep their cool, attempting to respond to the questions and accusations from critics. But this time, Commissioner Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick, like Francis, drew a line.
“I can assure you the five of us (commissioners) have done nothing intentional against anybody in this county. Any insinuation there is something different going on is completely wrong, and to be honest, I didn’t appreciate it either,” Kirkpatrick said.
The battle of words continued at the county commissioners meeting again this week, however.
“Other than righteous indignation I have not heard anyone attempt to defend Francis’ numbers,” Miller said.
If the revaluation was so off, Francis responded, then why didn’t Miller appeal his property values?
“I think my numbers are so good he didn’t even appeal his,” Francis said.
Horace Edwards, another critic sounding the alarm over property values, got vehement at the county commissioners meeting this week over a warning letter his daughter got after failing to pay her property taxes. The letter threatened foreclosure if she didn’t pay. Edwards grew increasingly upset as he read it aloud.
Edwards called it “the most asinine and crappy thing I have ever heard tell of” and threatened to “sue the hell” out of the county, then pounded the podium.
The letter in fact was a form letter sent to everyone who hasn’t paid their property taxes. Along with foreclosure, the letter warns of garnishing wages or directly tapping the person’s bank account. Almost always, the property owner sets up a payment plan.
“I am in charge of collecting taxes,” Francis replied. “I am not going to apologize for doing my job.”
Kirkpatrick diligently keeps notes during public comments, and afterwards addresses issues brought up by the audience.
“Sometimes I wonder if by responding I don’t bring on more encouragement,” Kirkpatrick said this week, but then dove in anyway. “As for revaluation we did the very best we could.”
Some who saw their property values increase will have a hard time — to put it mildly — paying more in taxes.
Eddie Cabe who lives in Canton says he is one of those people. His $67,000 home in Canton went up to $125,000. But it is a 90-year-old “box” house as he calls it, lacking proper floor joists, no insulation in the walls, and pull strings for light switches.
Kirkpatrick said those are things the appraisers couldn’t have known about Cabe’s house, and that’s what the appeal process is designed for.
“There are 55,000 parcels of property. We can’t come inside and evaluate each one, all they can do is take the sales that have taken place and look at the house from the outside and compare it to those in the neighborhood and put the best price they can on it. The best fair price,” Kirkpatrick said.
Cabe, who came to the county commissioners meeting to share his plight, said it wasn’t fair for his house to go up, while those with half million homes saw a drop in value.
“It seems like the folks that got money and the bigger nicer houses, theirs went down,” Cabe said. “I think this is the thing that people in the community are so upset with. We can debate all day along about whether real estate went up a little bit or down a little bit. But there are still people like me.”
Horace Edwards of Cruso questioned how his average three-bedroom home went up by more than 50 percent when mountainside mansions dropped in value.
“That’s not fair and equitable,” Edwards said. “I don’t belong to the upper end and I don’t get into the gated communities.”
Cure said the reval has created class warfare.
“These county commissioners have cut their nose off to spite their face. The median- to low-income people in the county are seeing their prices raised. They are the registered voters here. The higher priced homes are owned by people who don’t even live here and vote there,” Cure said.
Cure’s camp is calling on the county to throw out the revaluation and instead keep using the 2006 values on the books. Under 2006 values, upper prices homes would continue shouldering the same share of the property tax burden rather than seeing it shifted to lower and median priced properties.
Commissioner Bill Upton said tossing out the new values and keeping 2006 values on the books wouldn’t be fair. People who saw their property values fall compared to five years ago — roughly half the county — don’t want to keep paying taxes on values that are now too high.
“If we went back to 2006 we would have just as many people upset,” Upton said.
Cure agreed on that point. Those with high-dollar homes who saw their values come down would be up in arms if this reval was thrown out and the 2006 values carried on.
“Now you have a county divided,” Cure said.
Kirkpatrick said going forward with the revaluation seemed like the fair and right thing to do.
“If we had waited, some of these folks would be stuck with 2006 values that were by far higher than what their new values are. We weren’t trying to be fair to one class or another, but to as a whole be fair to everyone and go ahead and reval,” Kirkpatrick said.
Property owners who disagree with their values can appeal — either an informal appeal with the county’s appraisal staff or a formal one before the quasi-judicial board of equalization and review.
The number of informal appeals this reval were nearly identical to the one in 2006, indicating dissatisfaction was about the same as it is every time the county tackles the mass appraisal, with 5,600 informal appeals compared to 5,500 last time.
But formal appeals are up by 20 percent over 2006.
Francis thinks the newspaper ad contributed to a rush of appeals just before the deadline. The day the newspaper ad came out, the county only had 600 formal appeals.
It grew to 1,800 just four days later.
That’s compared to about 1,500 appeals in the last revaluation in 2006, but nearly the same as the one before that in 2002.
Of course, some wait until the appeal deadline approaches, so the surge in the final appeal stage can’t all be chalked up to the ad. But he thinks a good number can.
“The appeals were extremely low until the advertisement hit the paper. A lot of people came in not knowing why they were appealing but they had the ad,” Francis said.