Alamance County’s tax office has been ground zero for a veritable popular revolt since area residents began to receive the results of the county’s latest property revaluation last week.
But the consternation over this mass reassessment, which has lifted the county’s tax values nearly 80 percent from their previous levels, doesn’t appear to have dampened the spirit of the county’s tax administrator Jeremy Akins.
Despite the intensity of this response, Akins seemed preternaturally calm as he went about his duties in the tax office on Wednesday. Ever mindful of the public’s frustration, he nevertheless tried to put the outcry into perspective when he responded to a reporter from The Alamance News.
“We started getting feedback on Friday,” Akins recalled as he fortified himself with occasional sips from a Star Wars-themed coffee mug. “A lot of people had questions and concerns about the increase. Citizens think that the amount of the increase will be the amount of their tax bill, and we try to inform them that this is not the case.”
The tax administrator’s Jedi-like composure may come, in part, from his confidence in the revaluation’s results, which he insists are in line with the surge in real estate prices since the last countywide reappraisal in 2017. But Akins also owes his sangfroid to his faith in the post-revaluation appeals process – a process that’s intended to adjust any errors that the tax office may have made in its initial assessment of property values.
As of 11:00 a.m. on Wednesday, the tax office had already received 605 appeals from property owners who take issue with some aspect of the county’s assessment. Akins insists that this total is in line with what he had expected at this point in the process. Nor does he see any reason to fear that the influx of appeals is an indictment of the tax office’s work on the revaluation.
Akins notes that, in order to be successful, these appeals must provide hard evidence that the county’s appraisers missed something in their calculation of the disputed value.
“We’ve received appeals about acreage and appeals about square footage,” he went on to explain, “and these are things we can follow up on…It’s like an iceberg. There’s a lot of information we think we know but don’t know, and the appeals process brings that out.”
In order to evaluate these appeals more efficiently, Akins has assembled a team of experienced staff members to pore over the sundry submissions along with their supporting documentation. Among the challenges confronting this specialized detail is the task of separating out legitimate appeals from knee-jerk responses to the admittedly large spike in assessed values since the previous revaluation six years ago.
The tax office has tried to allay this sense of sticker-shock by reminding property owners that their market-driven increases in value won’t necessarily translate to a jump in the tax bills they get from the county.
The actual size of each resident’s bill will ultimately depend on the tax rate that the county’s board of commissioners sets in the county’s next annual budget. So far, all five of the commissioners have pledged to establish a “revenue-neutral” rate to ensure that, on average, each taxpayer is billed what he or she would’ve owed if the revaluation never occurred.
Attila Gyori, a staff member in the tax office’s appeals unit, admits that it hasn’t always been easy to describe the preeminent role of the tax rate to residents who contact the county to complain about the change in their assessed property values.
“We try to explain that the tax rate isn’t set yet,” he elaborated. “We tell them that our job is to make sure the fair market value is correct. The tax rate will determine how much they pay.”
The struggle to demystify the revaluation process has also been an ongoing concern to the county’s board of commissioners. Earlier this week, the board’s members recounted their own attempts to explain the reval’s mechanics to the aggrieved residents who’ve bombarded them with phone calls since the tax office sent out individual assessments.
“We’ve got to do a really good job of publicizing this,” Steve Carter, the vice chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners, declared when the issue came up during the board’s annual retreat on Monday.
“I’m not sure what more we can do,” added commissioner Bill Lashley, “unless me and Jeremy [Akins] go out and start shaking people saying ‘don’t you know what revaluation is?’”
Akins, for his part, has taken a much gentler tact with the flabbergasted residents who’ve approached him or his staff about the revaluation’s results. When simple explanations have failed, Akins has generally directed these individuals to the formal appeals process.
“We have electronic appeals, and we have paper appeal forms [on hand at the tax office],” he said. “We can even mail them out to people.”