Asheville – Buncombe County has been making strides to make its tax valuation system more accessible and equitable. Ongoing steps include flying a photography plane over every structure, driving a car around to capture street-view data, and reaching out to demographics that are less likely to appeal and less likely to win appeals.
Chair Brownie Newman asked Tax Assessor Keith Miller what the county had done to address the latter, particularly in light of some claims that a low-value house is more likely to be overvalued than a higher-end home. In recent years, urban planner Joe Minicozzi has made several public presentations demonstrating how celebrity millionaires in Biltmore Forest are paying property taxes at far lower rates than African-Americans living in small, rundown houses in Asheville.
Miller had already spoken about the tax department’s outreach team making appearances at the Juneteenth festival and on Carolina Spotlight and WLOS. The tax department has been training county employees to be ambassadors, and they’ve been holding meetings at community centers and with homeowner associations. They’ve also been hosting lunch and learns for realtors and appeals clinics with the Land of Sky Regional Council and Pisgah Legal Services. In addition, the website has been redesigned to make property card values more accessible, and all this is available on an app as well. People can use it either to update their information, pay bills, or file an appeal.
Miller said one reason lower-value properties tend to be overassessed is that low-income people are more likely to not know what to bring to an appeal, how to research comps, or even how the system works. Doing this is the responsibility of the taxpayer. Miller said the county cannot do appraisals alone. They can reach out and educate and identify and remove barriers for people who are not comfortable with the system as-is. Staff is working to let the public know that appeals are not a contentious process. It is the job of employees who hear appeals to work with citizens to make appraisals as accurate as possible.
Miller said staff listens to all concerns, and he felt Minicozzi’s concerns would be addressed in time for the 2025 revaluation. Miller reminded listeners that mass appraisal is not a perfect process; it is just a system for making best guesses given the unwieldy amount of data. As the county resolves issues brought to them, new issues will arise for the next revaluation. That said, he believed the additional staff members, departmental restructuring with the creation of dedicated analyst positions and a luxury homes specialist, and new technology would “make a tremendous difference.”
In response to a line of questioning from Commissioner Terri Wells, he said the county is working with an outside consultant, Splice Valuation, to find root causes for the most commonly heard complaints. They are also reviewing the borderlines of every single one of the 2,500 market areas used to establish group values in the assessment process.
More interestingly, in November, Cyclomedia will begin driving 1,878 miles of county roads, taking 360-degree pictures of structures. Miller said the resolution of this photography is adequate for assessing the quality of doors, windows, and roofing. Cyclomedia describes its technology as providing assessors with a “digital twin” of their city, which they may peruse online rather than driving around themselves.
Additional data will be collected by airplanes that will fly over 660 square miles, capturing aerial and oblique views of all 130,000 parcels in Buncombe County. This will provide data on each structure’s condition and square footage. What’s more, an automated feature, Sketch Inspect, will highlight what has changed since the last photograph on file was taken, alerting assessors to additions and other improvements.
The software the county is using will revalue all parcels nightly based on uploaded data on real estate transactions that closed the previous day. This data may be used by appraisers and can also alert the county to changes it may have otherwise missed. For now, Miller said automated valuation is only being used to help audit traditional means of collecting data. Discrepancies will signal the need for an assessor to pay a visit to the site.
In the near term, the county will continue its outreach efforts and continue to test the changes it is making to its revaluation process. Work on the schedule of values, which outlines the rules the county will use for revaluation, will be conducted in an extended, open process with opportunities for public input. Notices of new assessed values won’t be mailed until February 2025.