Tax administrator responds to allegations that reval favored retailers over homeowners

The latest gathering of Alamance County’s commissioners gave the county’s tax administrator a somewhat overdue opportunity to address a number of public complaints and concerns about the mass revaluation that the county implemented earlier this year.

The commissioners ultimately buttonholed the county’s tax administrator Jeremy Akins for some 67 minutes when they summoned him to the podium on Monday to address these and various other tax-related issues.

Akins used much of this time to address the public’s widespread grumbling over the revaluation’s unprecedented increases in home values – which were exacerbated by the commissioners and their municipal counterparts when they set new property tax rates this spring that exceeded the minimum they needed to break even after the reval.

Meanwhile, the county’s tax administrator also formally replied to accusations that one resident recently aired to the commissioners about the tax office’s seemingly light touch with retail centers and other non-residential properties. Akins’ replies to these claims have previously appeared in an issue of The Alamance News. But it wasn’t until Monday’s meeting that the tax administrator had a chance to respond to these charges directly before the county’s governing board.

Before Akins waded back through these allegations, however, he briefed the commissioners on a couple of auspicious developments within the county’s tax office. For starters, he presented the board with a rather reassuring report on his staff’s property tax collections from the past fiscal year.

Akins acknowledged that, during the most recent cycle, the tax office managed to collect $92,622,054.54 of the $93,577,915.66 in property taxes that it had formally billed. Akins added that this annual haul constitutes a collection rate of about 98.98 percent – a decrease of .02 percent from the previous year’s record-high figure.

“This is the second highest year that we have on record,” Akins went on to inform the commissioners. “I have been a little distracted in the past year; I don’t know why,” he added, facetiously alluding to the county’s recent revaluation. “But I feel very good that we have collected almost as much as we did last year.”

Akins assured the commissioners that his office will ultimately bring in much of the remaining $955,861.12 using strategies ranging from payment plans to wage garnishments of delinquent taxpayers. In the meantime, the commissioners gave Akins permission to write off $88,577.88 in uncollected taxes from 2013, which had reached the 10-year of statute of limitations.

Having put these matters to bed, Akins went on to discuss some of the lingering issues about the revaluation itself.

Akins reminded the commissioners that the appraised worth of all the county’s taxable real estate went up by 76 percent in this mass reappraisal. He went on to recall that residential property alone gained 81 percent in value – although he insisted that other forms of taxable property aren’t exactly being neglected by the county’s tax assessors.

Akins noted that this year’s revaluation didn’t affect public utility holdings or “personal property,” a term used to describe the vehicles and equipment owned by many commercial and industrial concerns. He stressed that these categories of property are reassessed on a year-to-year basis and consequently remain closer to their true market value than most taxable real estate, which is subject to the county’s periodic revaluations.

Akins also addressed the tax office’s seemingly favorable treatment of non-residential property during the reval. The county’s tax administrator conceded that industrial property went up an average of 76 percent in the mass reappraisal, while commercial and agricultural holdings picked up an extra 60 and 61 percent respectively. He argued, however, that these gains, which appear meager alongside the 81 percent logged by the county’s residential tax base, merely indicate that the tax values of these non-residential property types were closer to their market rates before the revaluation took place.

“I hear that it’s been done on the backs of the homeowners, and that is not true,” he added. “We’re balancing everybody back out…I don’t think there’s any property type that’s carrying the load or any property type that’s getting off easy.”

Akins went on to present two contrasting examples of commercial property that had fared rather differently during the reval.

The tax administrator’s first illustration concerned Lowe’s Home Improvement, whose Burlington store and its grounds had edged up 6.04 percent from $8,068,722 to $8,556,018. Akins noted that the store’s current tax value is tantamount to about $65.26 a square foot – a rate comparable to the $65.51 a square foot that retailer fetched for another, much newer store that it sold off in Waxhaw last year.

Another case study that Akins shared with the commissioners involved Burlington’s Holly Hill Mall, whose tax value shot up from $6,261,416 to $15,486,835 – an increase of about 147 percent. The tax administrator observed that, contrary to public misconception, this precipitous rise didn’t reflect the construction of a new Publix grocery store in a spot formerly occupied by Sears. Akins recalled that the site Publix now occupies was parceled off from the rest of the mall prior to the revaluation, and it also went up in value during mass reappraisal.
In the end, Akins’ explanations seemed to strike just the right note with the county’s governing board.

“I’m glad you looked into some of the things that you’d heard in this [very] room,” declared commissioner Bill Lashley as he captured the prevailing mood of the group. “I like the idea that you went out and said ‘this is the truth; this is where we landed; and this is why.’ Keep up the good work.”