Tax Assistance: Where to Draw Line? - TribPapers

Tax Assistance: Where to Draw Line?

Chair Brownie Newman would like to see the day when persons earning 80% to 100% of area median income will enjoy property tax abatement.

Asheville – It was the evening of the vote on the Buncombe County Commissioners’ budget for FY2022-2023. But first, there were a few changes. 

First, the commissioners had to handle some housekeeping measures. For one thing, changes in state legislation, made for legal contracting purposes, required commissioners with a conflict of interest in budget line items to recuse themselves from voting on those items. Then, when they cast their vote for the entire budget, the individual recusals would be noted. Secondly, the commissioners had failed to hold the requisite public hearings for economic development items in the budget. This affected contributions to eight organizations, which had to be suspended until the public hearing could be held on July 19.

Budget Director John Hudson explained sales tax revenue turned out to be not as strong as anticipated; in fact, it fell $241,654 short of budget. Other changes pertained to reshuffling funds in response to this. This brought the general fund budget to $398,135,568 with the tax rate remaining unchanged at 48.8 cents per $100 valuation. The only district tax rate to change was that of the Barnardsville Fire Department, which increased from 20 to 22 cents.

Other changes were made to the county’s homeowner grant policy. The policy offers breaks to financially strapped people unable to pay property taxes. The program was deemed a success last year due to a high number of applicants. This year, however, staff wanted to introduce means-testing. They suggested disqualifying applicants who had more than $5,000 in liquid assets, owned multiple residential properties, and/or received other tax deferment or reduction benefits for the year in question. Claims would have to be verified, but the county created an online portal and screening process to make things convenient for the poor on the right side of the digital divide and keep administrative costs down.

Chair Brownie Newman took issue with the $5,000 disqualification. Many Buncombe County residents likely thought it was too high, but Newman thought it was too low. It was hard for him to comprehend how somebody who had worked all their life and was unable to save more than $5,000 would be denied tax assistance. He even thought $10,000 in savings would be considered “modest” by many in the community. The county was scheduled to begin taking applications on July 1, so staff needed to know if the commissioners were going to want no asset threshold or a higher one.

The county’s Economic Services Director, Philip Hardin, said there had been a question about liquifiable assets on last year’s application, but about 29% of the people did not answer it. Of the 1,200 approved, about 25% would have been disqualified at the $5,000 threshold.

Newman said adding “hoops for people to jump through” disproportionately hurts low-income and otherwise underprivileged people who can’t afford to take time off work to figure out how to navigate the system. He said he might be persuaded to believe otherwise if there were evidence that a lot of people of means were abusing the program. He thought the questions about income, to make sure successful applicants were not earning more than 80% of the area median income (AMI), were sufficient. The questions about assets, he thought, leaned toward being invasive.

Commissioner Terri Wells asked if staff had found any or many egregiously wealthy people applying for the grants, and Hardin said there were a few with “upwards of $300,000-$400,000” in the bank. As he recalled, about 140 people with over $50,000 in liquid resources had received grants.

Asked how he came up with the $5,000 limit or even decided to consider asset valuation as a qualifier, Hardin said staff tried to “somewhat mimic” public assistance criteria. County Manager Avril Pinder added that it was believed that the more caps the county imposed, the further the funds would spread around to the poorest of the poor.

Newman offered, “There are a lot of people who are not in severe poverty who really struggle to make ends meet in this community.” He thought the county should, in future budget cycles, consider giving tax breaks to people earning between 80% and 100% of AMI. He wanted people in this group to have a break because they don’t qualify for a lot of assistance programs available to people in lower income brackets. He noted the county is already working on building subsidized housing for these people.

Wells said the commissioners should decide on a cap, advertise the program as available only to people with gross liquidity valued below that level, and then skip the asset verification processes. Commissioner Parker Sloan suggested $70,000, and Newman said he liked the idea of imposing a cap of $50,000 more than having a program in which hardly anybody participated. Wells’ idea with Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara’s $60,000 compromise cap was eventually accepted.

Hudson next told the commissioners it was time to vote on the general budget with the fee schedule and the capital projects ordinance. He said the commissioners had seen copies of the documents and discussed them at length in previous meetings. Most notably, in the fee schedule, the library system will eliminate fees for room rentals by nonprofits, repairs and replacements of cards and various media, and interlibrary loans. It is, however, increasing fees for decisions triggering the involvement of a collection agency.

Budget items highlighted by the county manager included expenditures of $2,311,845 for affordable housing, $3,868,000 for economic development incentives, and $2,000,000 for reparations. The county intends to add 60 positions in the coming fiscal year on top of the 47 positions added this year. An additional three positions will be added in the Solid Waste enterprise fund, and another eight will be added in the Grant Projects fund.