Taking a Magnifying Glass to Property Tax Inequities

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Put yourself in the shoes of your local tax assessor, sketchbook and tape measure in hand, who this afternoon has the nerve-racking job of walking up to a stranger’s property to levy a judgment that might mean hundreds or thousands of dollars to a homeowner. No one wants a person snooping around to make sure they’re paying their fair share in property taxes. It’s not unheard of for a tax assessor to knock on a door, have a gun pulled on them, and then be accused of trespassing. 

There is some uncertainty and tension around the topic of tax assessment and those who calculate the amount owed to the government. It’s a subject that’s typically left in the shadows and forgotten until someone wants to appeal their property tax bill. In many counties, the system feels arbitrary and the process of calculating property taxes seems unknown—even the process of becoming a tax assessor can be a mystery to the outsider.  

The Just Accounting for Health consortium, which includes Strong Towns, is taking a magnifying glass to this mystery by collecting data and researching the potential causes of property tax inequities in Western North Carolina. In many counties across the nation the property tax burden has been shifted from owners of larger and more expensive properties to people who own smaller and less expensive homes. The Just Accounting project is meant to bring about an understanding of the presence and effects of biases in property tax assessment standards, and to suggest possible solutions. 

One of the first steps in this project is to learn more about the role of a tax assessor and how these important municipal employees make determinations which have such large consequences for homeowners. To become an accredited assessor, the individual must complete certifications and courses, which differ state by state. This education is regularly updated through county programs that may consist of courses, workshops, seminars, conferences, or regional tax meetings. In North Carolina, these courses are designed to educate the tax assessor in the fundamentals of assessment and appraisal processes.

Depending on the property type, there can be various types of taxes assessed on land and structures. For example, when a piece of land is vacant, it might have a lower property tax rate compared to a bustling Walmart.

To discover the property tax amount, an assessor will typically first look at the appraised value of the property by using a combination of methods: the cost method, the income method, and a sales evaluation. This graphic shows a typical process for calculating a property tax bill In Western North Carolina: 

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