The Guilford County Tax Department is breathing a big sigh of relief.
That’s because the department just sent out roughly 210,000 notices of new property values to Guilford County homeowners and business owners and, in return, the department has not gotten a slew of complaints, appeals, questions or protests, nor have they seen angry mobs coming down to the tax office with pitchforks and torches.
Sometimes when counties conduct their revaluations and notify property owners of the new values, there’s a lot of consternation and a large number of appeals, and the county must spend a great deal of time double checking information and reassessing property, checking out property owner claims. It can also mean very long days for the county’s Board of Equalization and Review, which is appointed to settle these types of tax disputes – and the Guilford County Board of E&R doesn’t want that because it already holds all-day meetings even when it’s not a revaluation year.
So, every time the Guilford County Tax Department sends out property revaluation notices – currently that’s once every five years – tax officials hold their breath and cross their fingers.
After Guilford County tax staff spent most of 2016 reassessing every piece of property in the county, the department sent out notices of the new values on Friday, Feb. 17. Guilford County Tax Director Ben Chavis said most property owners who live in Greensboro got their notices on Saturday, Feb. 18 and those in other parts of the county received theirs early the following week. Property owners have until March 17 to appeal the valuations, so it’s still early in the process, but this week Chavis said all indications were very good. That deadline is for an informal review process.. However, even after March 17, property owners can contest their values by filing an appeal with the Board of Equalization and Review. In any year, taxpayers have until the end of May to file an appeal with that board.
Tax Department staff get an excellent idea of how well the new values are going over with property owners very soon after the bills are sent out: Since the department is seeing only a trickle of complaints, that tells staff that property owners feel the revaluations are pretty much on target. (It could also mean that tax appraisers came in low on the values. However, the Tax Department matches its values to recent property sales and those comparisons suggest the new valuations are capturing nearly 100 percent of the value of property in the county.)
“It’s all been positive,” Chavis said. “I couldn’t be more pleased. Overall the phones have been relatively quiet.”
He added that he believes several factors are keeping the number of complaints and questions to a minimum this time around.
“For one thing, the economy is doing much better,” Chavis said. “There is more optimism out there.”
Chavis said there certainly are challenges that remain for taxpayers in the current economy, but he added, “Things are headed in the right direction.”
When economic circumstances are dire, he said, people naturally look for savings anywhere they can find them, and the tax bill is one place people look. If they can convince the county to lower their assessed property value, it will mean a lower tax bill. Chavis said that, in 2009, after the economic collapse, his department got a lot of appeals even though a revaluation hadn’t been conducted in years. In that case, since 2009 was not a revaluation year, those appeals were filed with the Board of Equalization and Review.
“Their values were plummeting,” Chavis said.
According to Chavis, another reason the complaints are low this time around is that Guilford County went to a shorter revaluation cycle than it had been using. By law, counties in North Carolina must conduct a revaluation at least once every eight years – and that’s how often Guilford County was doing revaluations until the Board of Commissioners voted to change that cycle after the 2012 revaluation. Chavis said this week that he has been in talks with the county commissioners to move Guilford County to an even shorter, four-year, revaluation cycle. The Board of Commissioners is likely to agree to that move.
Chavis said that the cost of conducting a revaluation is not high because it can be done with existing staff. He said the cost for a revaluation this year included around $25,000 in overtime pay and $70,000 to mail the notices. He said there are other costs, such as aerial photographs but that revaluations in can now be done at a very reasonable price. It used to cost more years ago when the Tax Department had to add staff for a year to take on the extra work.
Chavis said that, when there’s a very long time between revaluations, property owners generally experience more “sticker shock” upon seeing the new value. Since the last revaluation in Guilford County was five years ago instead of eight, there’s less time for prices to move.
Chavis said another factor that’s helping keep down complaints about valuations this year is a brand new web tool that allows users to go in and see what county appraisers were thinking when they assigned a value.
That Parcel Value Review Tool can be found at www.myguilford.com/2017-reappraisal and it offers an interesting set of features for concerned property owners – and even nosy neighbors. Anyone can go there and see a description of any property in the county and look at things like square-footage, number of bedrooms, whether there is central air, fireplaces, a pool or other amenities. Another tool at the Tax Department’s webpage allows owners to see comparable home sales, offering some insight into how the county arrived at its valuations.
Using the web tools, property owners can make sure the county has the correct details regarding a home or business, and owners can submit changes to the data. (On the other hand, if the county has missed some of the amenities that your fine and newly renovated home offers, you might be wise to keep it to yourself and enjoy the extra pocket money until the next revaluation rolls around.)
If – after seeing the “comp” home sales and prices and reviewing the information on file for their property – owners want to file an appeal, another web tool allows them to do that online.
Chavis said that most of the neighborhoods that saw the greatest increase in value were the result of new buildings, new parcels or a new zoning code for the neighborhood.
Chavis said northwest Greensboro seems to have experienced the most growth for the purposes of valuation.
“The demand is so strong in some areas of the northwest that older homes with large lots are being demolished so that denser subdivisions of houses or townhomes can be built,” Chavis wrote in an email. “This obviously affects the overall appreciation rate for homes in those areas.”
On the other end of the spectrum, some county properties have dropped dramatically.
“Not so surprising, the Heritage House Condo neighborhood went down 64.61 percent,” Chavis added, referring to the area around the infamous condominiums that the City of Greensboro condemned and closed down.
Chavis said the Guilford County commissioners are the ones who control the second part of the equation that goes into the coming tax bills.
“Folks want to know what the bottom line will be,” Chavis said.
The county’s tax bills will be determined by both the new property values and the coming property tax rate. Chairman of the Board of Commissioners Jeff Phillips will play a big role in determining Guilford County’s rate. The tax bill puzzle will be complete by the end of June when the Board of Commissioners adopts a property tax rate for fiscal 2017-2018, which will be contained in Guilford County’s new budget.
Chavis said that, on the Monday after the new valuations came out, he ran into Phillips at Freddy’s Frozen Custard & Steakburgers on Battleground Avenue and the two talked about the recent revaluation. The value of Phillips’ house went up a few percentage points but the commissioner wasn’t complaining.
Sometimes counties have used a property value increase in a revaluation year as a way to implement an unannounced tax increase on people since – when property values go up and the tax rate stays the same – the county pulls in greater revenue from taxpayers even with the same tax rate as before.
This week, Phillips said he’s absolutely cognizant of the importance of making sure people understand the revenue-neutral tax rate after a revaluation year. Phillips said that, if one goes back to the time he was running for a seat on the Board of Commissioners, one of the things he was advocating greatly for was transparency in government.
“You can go back to what I was saying in 2011 and 2012,” he said.
Commissioner Hank Henning also said that the Republican majority on the board has no interest in a tax increase and he for one will do everything in his power to avoid one, hidden or otherwise.
The law states that the county must publish the revenue-neutral rate. It reads: “In each year in which a general reappraisal of real property has been conducted, the budget officer shall include in the budget, for comparison purposes, a statement of the revenue-neutral property tax rate for the budget.”
The revenue-neutral property tax rate is the rate that is estimated to bring in revenue for the coming fiscal year that is equal to the same revenue amount that would have been brought in for the next fiscal year under the current tax rate if there hadn’t been a reappraisal.
The statute states that the county’s budget officer “shall further adjust the rate to account for any annexation, deannexation, merger, or similar event.”
Chavis said tax officials haven’t calculated the revenue-neutral rate yet. The Tax Department will provide that number later in the budget process once the department has a better view of the number of appeals as well as other information.