Usually, when people are thrilled, they’re thrilled by something that happened, but right now the Guilford County Tax Department is thrilled by something that didn’t happen.
Namely, in 2017, despite a revaluation of all property in Guilford County, county property owners didn’t come out in droves to lodge appeals as they usually do during a “reval” year – a fact that suggests most property owners were relatively content with the way the Tax Department appraised their property last year.
In fact, in 2017, unlike in previous revaluation years, Guilford County saw a remarkably low number of appeals.
Guilford County Tax Director Ben Chavis said that appeals over appraised property values were way down across all categories in 2017, after Guilford County held its first revaluation in five years. Chavis said that, in 2012, the year of the previous revaluation, there were about 5,000 “informal appeals” to his department. That’s an appeal where the dispute is worked out between the property owner and Tax Department staff. In 2017, that number was only about 2,500.
Chavis added that the appeals to the Guilford County Board of Equalization and Review – the five-member county body that settles disputes over property tax values – fell from 2,500 in 2012 to 1,400 in 2017.
The same trend holds for the appeals that went to the state. Property owners seek relief from the North Carolina Property Tax Commission if they are still unsatisfied after county appeals are exhausted. In 2012, about 500 cases of property valuations were appealed to that state commission; however, for 2017, that number was down to 290.
“We’ve had about half the number of appeals at the informal level and half at the Board of E and R,” Chavis said. “They’ve been cut in half across the board.”
The tax director said this was obviously good news for the department and added that he thinks several factors have contributed to the steep and welcome decline in tax value appeals. According to Chavis, new online tools at the Tax Department’s website have provided taxpayers more information about how their property valuations were determined this time around. One new online tool offers taxpayers information about comparable property and houses in their area, while another provides a great deal of detail as to how the county tax appraisers arrived at an assessed value. The new web tools also offer an easy way for taxpayers to file an appeal through the website. Chavis said that, with an appeal now so easy to file – they don’t even have to mail a letter – there was concern that more citizens would appeal in 2017, but, he added, the exact opposite has proven to be the case.
Chavis said the online tools give property owners insight into Guilford County’s justification for its valuations. He said the county is being very “transparent” about how it arrived at its valuations last year.
“I think people realize the [appraised] values are close to the market value,” the tax director said.
Chavis said other factors are also at play. For instance, he said, the economy is better now than in 2012, so people are less inclined to appeal a value that they perceive as high.
Something else that’s helping keep complaints down, he said, is that Guilford County has a shorter revaluation cycle than it’s had in the past. The department now conducts the countywide “reval” once every five years rather than every eight as it did in the past. Chavis said reducing the time between revaluations means the county’s assessed property values don’t have as much time to move out of line with actual market values.
“This is the first time we went to a shorter cycle,” Chavis said. “You don’t have all that volatility.”
He also said that, at the Guilford County Board of Commissioners annual planning retreat Thursday, Feb. 8 and Friday, Feb. 9, he wants to make the case to the commissioners why the county should move to an even shorter, four-year, revaluation cycle.
“We’ll see what they want to do,” Chavis said of shaving one more year off the current five-year cycle. “It would certainly be my preference.”
Chavis said that these days with his staff and computerized tools it is not that much extra work to conduct a revaluation every four years rather than every five, and he added that going to a shorter revaluation cycle, as many have done in the state, helps make sure that assessed property values stay aligned with actual market values.
Chavis said his department is also going to request funding for another round of aerial pictometry to help value property in Guilford County. In that process, the department uses pictures from airplanes to create computer generated 3-D images of structures in the county. A software programs then notes any changes since the last round of photos, which helps the Tax Department find new additions and home improvements that may have gone unregistered on the tax rolls. Those high-resolution photos also help appraisers determine more accurate values thanks to the details provided.
“It was a wonderful tool,” Chavis said of 3-D aerial pictometry. “We’re going to be asking for it again.”
In non-revaluation years, the number of appeals has also been falling steadily since 2009. That year, a non-reval year, 1,155 cases went to the Board of Equalization and Review. The following year, that number fell to 1,055 and it continued to decline in most subsequent years. By 2016, the number of cases heard by the Board of Equalization and Review was down to 318. Those totals always spike during revaluation years, such as 2012 and 2017, when new values are put on property in the county.
Guilford County Board of Equalization and Review Chairman Larry Proctor said 2017 was “just so much more peaceful” than 2012.
He said his board met a lot less than it did five years ago, and, each time that it did, there was an atmosphere of everyone working together to come to an amicable agreement.
“Nobody was really irritated,” Proctor said of the 2017 appeals that his board heard.
He added that the Board of Equalization and Review is now full of seasoned board members, but in 2012, it had a lot of new members who were still getting the hang of it.
“I think the board did a great job,” Proctor said of settling the disputes that arose from the 2017 revaluation.
According to Proctor, the Tax Department conducted a very detailed analysis of property values and Chavis and his staff, Proctor said, were eager to work with the Board of Equalization and Review on questions.
“I think you have to go back to the appraisers and how they are evaluating the property” Proctor said of the low number of appeals seen this year.
Proctor said that, even though tax staff did an excellent job of valuing property fairly this time around, there was still a need for the Board of Equalization and Review.
“You can’t be perfect on everything,” Proctor said.
He said the complaints property owners bring before the board vary widely.
“They’re almost never the same,” he said.
Proctor said sometimes a disagreement stems from a factual error made by either an appraiser or a homeowner.
“Sometimes the square footage was wrong,” Proctor said. “They do the appraisals from the outside and, for instance, might think a porch is heated when it is not.”
He said one case that came before the Board of Equalization and Review involved a house that had faux windows that made it look as though it had a second floor when it really didn’t.
Proctor said that, several years ago, the Board of Equalization and Review went from seven members to five and he said that was the right move for the county to make.
“I can only say positive things about that,” Proctor said of that board’s reduction in size. “It just works better.”
Assistant Guilford County Tax Director Jim Roland said he believes many factors came together in 2017 to make the appeals process a lot less onerous than it’s been in previous revaluation years.
“It has a lot to do with efficiency, as well as the staff,” Roland said. “Everything just seemed to click.”
Roland, who works more on the collections side of the process than on appraisals, said that collection rates for property taxes have been very good in recent years. While the department will never collect to 100 percent of money owned, in the last few years that rate has been over 99 percent.
“High Point is the most improved,” Roland said. “I think it has to do with the economy.”
He said that High Point has seen a good deal of development in recent years and an increase in economic activity.
High Point University, which pays property taxes on Oak Hollow Mall but is exempted from paying taxes on the rest of the property it owns, has had a lot of new growth and, in the last five years, there have been a lot of new announcements of business expansion and of new business coming to High Point. A countywide reduction in the unemployment rate has also helped keep tax collection rates high.