Local & State Voices

On taxes: You can’t have it all, Mecklenburg

Mecklenburg revaluation raised raised residential property values an average of 43 percent.
Mecklenburg revaluation raised raised residential property values an average of 43 percent. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

I’ve raised Cain for 10 years about one-party rule in Raleigh. The absence of even a stiff breeze to slow hyper-partisan government has led to extreme outcomes. The Republican super-majority has done what it wanted, because it could. And now with Democrats in the absolute majority on the Mecklenburg Board of Commissioners, just the possibility there’s little diversity of thought is concerning, for all the same reasons it was in Raleigh.

The first test is the Mecklenburg property revaluation, in which new values border on absurd. Residential values are up 43 percent and commercial values an eye-popping 77 percent. County commissioners met last week to discuss budgets and taxes. Based upon what’s been reported, there might be a few drunk sailors amongst them. Co-chair George Dunlap threatened that commissioners who don’t agree to raise taxes will suffer the same fate as the Republicans they just defeated. Threatening people is what politicians do when they either don’t have a compelling case to make or they’re just too lazy to make it. I suspect it’s the latter.

Commissioners discussed the need for better schools and parks, universal pre-K, greenways and affordable housing. Few will disagree with any of that, certainly not me. I’m a progressive who believes government can positively impact lives. But I also own a house and a business here. I’m acutely aware of the impact taxes have on both, because property value is like owning stock — it’s only a number on paper until you sell. Unlike stocks, the government taxes you on property every year like you just sold it. It’s an annual tax on an unrealized gain.

Revaluations are theoretically a reapportionment of the tax burden, a periodic adjustment to ensure owners of the most and least expensive dirt are paying their fair share. If rates are adjusted to revenue neutral, that’s largely what occurs. What revaluations are not intended to be is an excuse to raise taxes. North Carolina actually requires municipalities to disclose and publish their revenue neutral tax rate following revaluation, presumably to ensure taxpayers know if someone’s trying to slip daylight past the rooster.

The county just increased our taxes in their last budget cycle. Sucking tens of millions of dollars out of the economy every few years has obvious consequences, many unintended. We’re competing globally for new jobs to move here and taxes are a part of that recruiting formula. Also, what’s left of our existing affordable housing stock sits on dirt that’s getting disproportionately more valuable. Many working class and African American communities such as Biddleville, Seversville, Enderly Park, Smallwood and Optimist Park are places where families are being pushed out because they can’t afford to live there anymore. Add higher taxes and it’s just hard to see how the historic fabric of these communities survives.

An important part of our local brand has been affordability, which seems to be flittering away. Brands rarely die a natural death. They’re usually murdered or commit suicide. With the local impact of HB2 and rapidly increasing costs of living, an argument could be made for both.

Let’s hope there are voices remaining that will ask hard questions and push back on assumptions. Although Mecklenburg County is largely a prosperous community, someone has to utter the words, “We have to make choices.” In the end, we can have anything we want. But we can’t have everything we want.

Email: billy@billymaddalon.com