Asheville – The drama was full of suspense. Staff Attorney Curt Euler had come before the Buncombe County Commissioners to present a request for a tax refund. Building the county’s defense, he explained that North Carolina General Statutes prohibit the commissioners from refunding taxes paid, making exceptions only for clerical errors, illegal taxes, or taxes levied for an illegal purpose. What’s more, if the commissioners were to refund a tax for any other reason, those who voted to release it could be held personally liable for making the county whole.
On the flip side, if the commissioners were to deny the request, the taxpayer would have three years to file a civil action. Should the taxpayer win, the county would be liable for the refund at 6% interest as well as court costs. Euler pointed out that the prospects of this happening were so unlikely that the legislature didn’t even bother to get into the kind of details that would be necessary to come up with an amount due.
It was now up to the commissioners to decide if the request at hand qualified for one of the exemptions.
The party requesting the refund was General Electric Healthcare, LLC. Euler was adamant that this was not General Electric Aerospace, which received $9 million in incentives from the county, plus a county-owned building valued at $18–$20 million, to locate in Asheville back in 2014. And that was just part of a deal for which GE accepted over $11.2 million in cash via state and local aid for the opening of four facilities. Another round of incentives followed in 2018.
Euler explained the county was dealing with three other divisions: GE Industrial, GE Capital, and GE Electric Company. GE Healthcare and Finance, he said, was the legal successor of the first two. Regardless, for both tax years 2019 and 2020, all three companies managed to, “in several instances,” declare the same items at the GE Aerospace buildings as their personal property on the lists they submitted. The tax assessor merely applied his formulae to the values supplied and mailed the bills.
Euler reviewed how the county levies taxes. It is the responsibility of each taxpayer to submit a list of all non-exempt tangible personal property that he keeps in the taxing district by January 1. The county uses these lists to assess values and send out tax bills. The only exception might be if the county were to somehow find out about additional property that was not listed, in which case it has the power to add it to an assessment, even if it is after January 1.
Following a line of questioning from Chair Brownie Newman, it was established that, upon receipt of a tax bill, taxpayers are allowed to challenge their assessment through a set date in mid-April. After that, the county cannot keep accepting challenges because, as Euler explained, that would make it very difficult to draft and keep a budget, especially when the refund amount is $279,990, which is what GE was requesting from the county. As an aside, GE also filed a refund request with the City of Asheville for $227,007. GE Healthcare and Finance discovered the duplications in an audit conducted in 2022, and the commissioners received a letter from GE requesting a refund only a month ago.
Euler said that double taxation was only a theory in North Carolina law. There was no case law, so the commissioners could be embarking on setting a precedent. It was staff’s opinion, however, that GE expended its recourses when it did not bring the dispute before the Board of Equalization and Review within four months of receiving the respective bills. “The taxpayer, in this case, doesn’t have the ability to come back and call it an illegal tax based on their accounting error,” said Euler. He seemed to say later, however, that not having done so, the taxpayer would have the option of appealing to the board of commissioners.
Commissioner Jasmine Beach Ferrara said she did not think the commissioners had the legal knowledge to decide this, and she would prefer to deny the request and get a ruling from the courts. She made a motion to this effect, and Commissioner Al Whitesides seconded.
Newman asked if the county, now knowing the right amount, shouldn’t be obligated to set the record straight, and Euler said that was not how he read the law. He understood what Newman was saying in terms of equity in having everybody pay their due, but there is another equity in making everybody play by the same rules with the same deadlines. Only Newman voted against the motion.