“I’m on a fixed income. I can’t pay any more tax. I cannot do it, and I think I have been treated unfairly.”
– Burlington resident William Mitchell
William Mitchell thought he’d seen it all in his 92 years. But even he wasn’t prepared for the shock he received four months ago, when he tore open an envelope from the county’s tax office that contained the county’s new assessment of his home at 1710 West Front Street in Burlington.
Based on the tax office’s calculations, the fair market value of this 1,700-square-foot dwelling had catapulted from $89,236 in 2022 to $162,755 in January, when the county implemented the results of the latest state-mandated mass reappraisal.
To Mitchell’s mind, the tax office wasn’t just overly optimistic in its evaluation of his residence. It was downright deluded, given his belief that the neighborhood where he had lived for the past 32 years had the declined to the point that his home would be almost impossible to unload, regardless the price.
So, it was with a spirit of righteous conviction that Mitchell strode into Alamance County’s headquarters on Thursday to challenge his revaluation before the county’s board of equalization and review.
Armed with nine decades of life experience, as well as a hand-drawn map that served mostly as a personal reference, the nonagenarian did his best to persuade this appointed, quasi-judicial board that the tax office had been woefully off in its estimation of his home’s taxable worth.
“I’m on a fixed income,” he implored the group’s members. “I can’t pay any more tax. I cannot do it, and I think I have been treated unfairly.”
Running the gauntlet
Mitchell is one of 95 area property owners who’ve, so far, had the opportunity to protest their tax values with the board of equalization and review since its members began to hear revaluation-related appeals in April.
These individuals, who have collectively challenged the county’s assessments for 127 parcels, represent just a small chunk of the 4,854 valid appeals that the tax office has received in response to this year’s mass reassessment. According to the county’s tax office, these formal challenges seek an average reduction of 25.9 percent to parcels that, when taken together, are currently assessed at more than $3.4 billion.
The tax office notes that, of the 4,854 appeals it has received since the revaluation, it has already dispensed with 2,256 of these cases – including 1,549 that went before the board of equalization and review after an initial ruling by the tax office’s staff. Meanwhile, the tax office has worked through another 1,007 cases that remain unresolved and may eventually find their way before the same county-level appeals panel.
Chosen by Alamance County’s commissioners from among the county’s own residents, the board of equalization and review provides a degree of lay oversight to decisions of the professional staff in the county’s tax office.
“It’s a citizen review process,” Chris Faircloth, a member of this five-member board, explained in an interview Thursday.” We’re all taxpayers up here, and we all got hit by the same increases in value.”
To be fair…
In the vast majority of the cases that come its way, the board of equalization and review merely rubberstamps an agreement that the tax office has previously reached with the property owner – and which often differs from the county’s initial assessment. So far this year, the board has signed off on 1,422 of these consent decrees. The board has also scheduled 127 formal appeals hearings, although not all of them have elicited the same, vigorous challenge that Mitchell was able to mount when his case came up for consideration on Thursday.
The county’s own response to these appeals has largely been managed by a firm called Vincent Valuations. Originally retained by the tax office in 2021 to aid the tax office with the revaluation’s commercial component, the company currently has several expert appraisers on site in Alamance County to shepherd revaluation appeals through the equalization and review process.
Attila Gyori, the head of the company’s appeals detail, contends that he and his colleagues strive for a fair, accurate tax value regardless of how it affects the bottom line for the tax office.
See separate story, a Public Asks, about how and why Vincent Valuations was selected to assist in the revaluation process: https://alamancenews.com/why-did-tax-office-hire-out-of-house-firm-to-help-with-this-years-revaluation/
“We’re making sure that the values we have on real parcels are correct,” Gyori told The Alamance News in an interview Thursday. “First, we make sure the documentation we have is correct. Then, we make sure the values are correct by looking at comparisons. If the values are correct, we notify the appellants. At that point, the appellants can consent, or they can challenge our values and come before the board.”
“The important thing that we want them to do is to bring evidence. Show us what the problem is. We want to know the positives, and we want to know the negatives so that we can apply justice accordingly.”
– Board of Equalization and Review chairman Frank Bell
According to the tax office, 41 of the 95 property owners who’ve opted to appeal to the board didn’t actually turn up for their hearings as scheduled. Some of these appellants had previously asked the tax office to present their appeals on their behalf, while others simply failed to show up. In either case, Gyori said that it has fallen to him to represent these “no-shows” when their cases come up.
“In these cases, I try to be as impartial as possible,” the contractor went on to assert. “I read the appellant’s case to the board, and I present any comps [they’ve provided for comparable properties].”
‘Evidence is king’
In the final analysis, the success or failure of any appeal rests on the quality of the information that property owners can bring to bear in their favor. Frank Bell, the chairman of the board of equalization and review, insists that he and his colleagues will happily rule in favor of the property owner’s request whenever this data convincingly refutes the county’s assessment.
“The important thing that we want them to do is to bring evidence,” Bell proceeded to stress in an interview Thursday. “Show us what the problem is. We want to know the positives, and we want to know the negatives so that we can apply justice accordingly.”
In order to help property owners craft better, more compelling arguments for their preferred tax values, the tax office has posted an online guide that offers the public some tips for submitting a successful revaluation appeal.
This primer zeroes in on two forms of actionable evidence – the first being information about the material state of a property that may have escaped the tax office’s notice. To this end, the tax office urges property owners to highlight things such as unfinished or deteriorated buildings and property that can’t be developed because it lies in a watershed.
In addition to physical data, the tax office also encourages property owners to provide sales records for properties similar to those under appeal. In selecting these “comparable sales,” the tax office cautions property owners to make sure their proffered examples are close enough in size, age, and location to serve as valid benchmarks for the ones being reviewed.
In any event, Gyori insists that the extent to which this guide tries to cut the guess work out of the appeals process is fairly unusual in his experience as a revaluation consultant.
“Alamance County probably has the most transparent appeals process that I’ve seen,” he goes on to add. “You can go on the county’s website and there’s a document on there that tells you how to file a successful appeal.”
The process hits home
In spite of these efforts on the part of the tax office, much of the “evidence” that property owners have presented in support of their preferred tax values has proven less than persuasive to the county’s board of equalization and review.
According to the tax office, the board’s members have sided with the county in its rulings on 102 of the 127 parcels that have, so far, come up for hearings. For many of these parcels, Vincent Valuations was already proposing reductions in value below the tax office’s initial assessments, and the board simply confirmed the firm’s revised numbers when it heard the appeal. In another 25 cases, however, the board broke with Vincent’s suggestions and settled on tax values lower than what the company sought.
In Mitchell’s case, the board of equalization and review ultimately ruled in favor of the company’s recommendation, notwithstanding the appellant’s dogged assertions that his property was overvalued in light of the deterioration along his stretch of West Front Street.
In presenting his case to the board, the 92-year-old homeowner keyed in on the presumed impact of the Brookwood Gardens Condominiums across the street from his home. Mitchell argued that this 27-unit complex has gone to pot since he purchased his home 32 years ago and has transmogrified into a collection of low-rent apartments that have become magnets for blight and criminal activity.
Mitchell’s contentions were nevertheless called into question by a catalog of hard data that Vincent Valuations presented in defense of the county’s original tax value.
During Thursday’s appeals hearing, Jeffrey Conner, an appraiser with this contracted firm, assured the board of equalization and review that Mitchell’s home had already been marked down by about 35 percent to account for its distressed location. Conner went on present a trove of comparable sales data to justify the county’s assessment – beginning with a recent transaction within Brookwood Gardens.
“This condo,” he told the board’s members, “was sold to an owner-occupant in March, and it went for $105 a square foot…[while] the value of the subject [property] is $96 a square foot.”
Conner also provided the board with sales data for several single-family homes along West Front Street that, likewise, seemed to support the tax department’s initial assessment.
“Based on these comparable sales, we’re seeing values $40 to $70 [a square foot] in excess of where the subject [property] is assessed,” he concluded. “What we’re seeing is that this value is supported.”
In the end, the evidence that Conner had shared left no doubts about the veracity of the county’s assessment for the chairman of the board of equalization and review.
“They have presented to you with a reasonable value,” Bell told the appellant before he and his colleagues voted 5-to-0 to uphold the tax office’s recommendation. “Your property is assessed at $96 a square foot, and everything around you is at $105 per square foot or better.”
For Mitchell, however, the rejection of his appeal was quite a bitter pill for him to have to digest.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” he told the board as his hearing drew to a close. “I’m 92. I guess I’ve got to appeal it,” he added, indicating his intent to take the case to the N.C. Property Tax Commission in Raleigh.
“You can appeal to the state,” Bell went on to concede, “and I don’t want to discourage you, but based on the evidence that we’ve seen here today, you’ll be wasting your time.”