Politics & Government

Property value increases ‘startled’ even county leaders. Soon, they’ll decide tax rate.

As property owners throughout Mecklenburg County start to receive their new property values this week, county commissioners met in Greensboro on Thursday to start hashing out their priorities and budget for the coming fiscal year.

The board has four new commissioners this year, after longtime commissioner Dumont Clarke retired and all three of the Republican incumbents were swept out of office. Democrats have a 9-0 majority on the board, the first single-party control since 1964.

The commissioners will be setting their budget over the next several months, balancing different priorities such as expanding access to Pre-K and early childhood education (estimated to cost almost $24 million) to speeding up the county’s plan to build 215 more miles of greenway to funding Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, which the county and school boards typically tussle over. The current budget is $1.7 billion.

How the commissioners set the tax rate will be a closely watched subject, with many owners nervous about the potential impact of higher property values on their bill.

“If we need more money than revenue neutral, I think we need to be crystal-clear on what that is, and get community input,” said vice chair Elaine Powell, who said she has heard concern from many of her constituents about the tax rate.

Other commissioners indicated a greater willingness to raise more money through higher taxes to fund expanded programs from the county.

“I don’t want to pay more taxes. No one does. But I know for the common good, my contribution is part of my citizenship,” said Trevor Fuller. “I don’t regard it as a burden. I regard what I pay in taxes as my contribution.”

Property taxes fund about 60 percent of the county’s budget. Commissioners chairman George Dunlap emphasized that the programs community members have lobbied for come with a price tag.

“You want greenways. You want parks. You want affordable housing. You want Pre-K. All of those things have a cost,” said Dunlap. “If you expect that a revenue neutral budget will deliver those things, as mama said, you’ve got a wake-up call. It ain’t gonna happen.”

And Dunlap had a message for commissioners about the blue wave that swept three Republicans off the board: “Those people who say the opposite didn’t get elected. They’re not here. If you do exactly what they would have done, you won’t get elected either.”

The 2019 revaluation — the county’s first in eight years — is wrapping up, with notices going out this week to property owners. The new values are already available online at www.meckreval.com.

Those values are likely to be much higher. The total value of real estate in Mecklenburg increased 54 percent, with a median increase of 43 percent for residential property and 77 percent for commercial property, which includes apartment buildings.

While tax values are public now, property tax bills won’t go out until July, after Mecklenburg County, Charlotte and the other local municipalities set their new tax rates. They could choose to set a “revenue neutral” rate to raise the same amount of money, or a higher rate to raise more. Properties with bigger value increases are more likely to see higher tax bills under any scenario, while properties with value increases lower than the median could see their bills decline.

Fuller asked how likely it is that higher tax bills will cause many people to flee Mecklenburg, if commissioners choose to set a higher rate.

“Do people say, ‘That’s it I’m leaving Mecklenburg County? Or, I’m buying fewer cheeseburgers?’” he asked. “We shouldn’t expect some kind of upheaval in the county because of the revaluation. Seems unlikely.”

“There’s a great deal of anxiety about this,” said Fuller. “People do think that necessarily because your values have gone up your taxes will go up by a similar rate.”

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Tax Assessor Ken Joyner said some of the sharpest increases in residential real estate values occurred in close-in neighborhoods northwest, north and east of uptown. Many of those are older areas with smaller homes, a high percentage of renters and historically lower-income residents that have seen a massive wave of redevelopment.

Many of those areas have seen home values double.

Ken Joyner Mecklenburg County

“It’s clear when you go into these neighborhoods and you see a property that’s been there for many, many years next to a brand new structure,” Joyner said, “that this is occurring.”

Commissioner Mark Jerrell said he’s concerned about higher tax bills leading to displacement in those neighborhoods, especially renters.

“I’m very, very concerned about that, with the reval coming and the potential impact to them,” said Jerrell.

Commissioners repeatedly tried to remind people that higher property values don’t automatically mean higher tax bills.

“People get wound up when they know the reval is coming, but there’s nothing to fret,” said Dunlap.

Even some commissioners, however, admitted they were surprised to see their new property values online.

“I won’t say it startled me,” said Fuller. “But it startled me.”

Ely Portillo covers local and state government for the Charlotte Observer, where he has previously written about growth, crime, the airport and a five-legged puppy. He grew up in Maryland and attended Harvard University.