Guilford County Commissioner James Upchurch said this week that a plan by Chairman of the Board of Commissioners Skip Alston and other commissioners on the board to reduce the property tax rate if voters pass a sales tax is just a “smoke and mirrors” move.

He said it just makes taxpayers think they’re getting a break on their taxes when in reality the county will be taking a lot more from taxpayers than last year.

Alston and others on the Board of Commissioners plan to vote on a resolution that will commit the board to a three-cent reduction in the property tax rate if voters pass a quarter-cent sales tax hike that’s on the ballot in May.

Alston said earlier this week that this would be a good way to take some of the burden off of property owners and put it instead on people who pass through the county, or who live in another county and work in Guilford County, or who rent a house in Guilford County but don’t own property.

Property owners pay the property tax, Alston said, but everyone who buys something in Guilford County pays the sales tax.

Upchurch, who was elected as a Democrat but later changed his party affiliation to Republican, said he wants to call out Alston on the sleight of hand, and he said that when people understand the nature of the countywide property revaluation – such as the one Guilford County conducted this year – they will see that Alston is doing no favors by reducing the property rate three-cents.

His point is this: The value of property across Guilford County went up in a major way over the last five years – the time since the last revaluation by the Guilford County Tax Department.  With property in the county now on the tax rolls at much higher values, county property owners are going to be paying a lot more in property taxes even though the property tax rate will remain the same or be knocked down by three cents.

“My issue is with the circus he’s trying to orchestrate,” Upchurch said of Alston.

Upchurch said a three-cent tax decrease will save some people in the county money – but, in the end, they will still all be paying much, much more in property taxes.

“Many people don’t understand how the revaluation works,” Upchurch said.

Even a three-cent decrease, he said, won’t come close to making up the amount taxpayers would be able to keep if the county commissioners held the tax rate “revenue neutral.” – that is, if the board lowered the tax rate to a point where the county is pulling in the same about of revenue it did last year. That’s what a Republican-majority board did five years ago when the county held the last revaluation – the board set a new tax rate at a lower “revenue neutral” level.

Upchurch said that, though the final figures haven’t been released yet, county property owners would be getting something like a 10-cent tax decrease if the board was being honest about the situation and if the board really wasn’t raising property taxes in a subversive way.

Even if the property tax rate came down three cents, Upchurch said, the taxpayers are still getting a huge “hidden” tax increase because property values have shot up and – with those new values now on the books – property owners will be paying a whole lot more in taxes at the same old tax rate that the county has had for years.

Upchurch also said he wouldn’t be surprised to see Alston make this pledge not to raise the tax rate this year, but then do so in a big way in the following years. This week Alston said publicly that he wouldn’t support a property tax rate increase in the next four years,  but Upchurch, who’s no fan of Alston’s, said Alston could go back on that pledge after the sales tax passes by saying “conditions have changed” or something along those lines.

Upchurch added that the other Democrats on the board support Alston no matter what he does.

“The other Democrats won’t oppose him – they never do,” Upchurch said. “There’s a hidden agenda behind this whole thing – he’s just doing anything he can to get the sales tax increase passed.  I feel like he’s trying to deceive people
because many of them don’t understand how a revaluation works.”

Upchurch also said the quarter-cent sales tax hike has been voted down by a big margin several times before in Guilford County, but the county commissioners won’t listen to the voters.  He added that, if it fails in May, voters are likely to see it again on the ballot in November.

“They’re trying to shove this thing down people’s throats,” Upchurch said.