Wake assessing property tax idea

Frequent reappraisals would be more fair and ease the 'sticker shock' of eight-year leaps, officials say

Staff WriterMay 29, 2006 

  • By law, North Carolina counties must reassess real estate at least every eight years.

    But nearly half do so more frequently to keep up with market values.

    WHICH COUNTIES REASSESS MORE FREQUENTLY

    FOUR YEARS: 35 counties, including Chatham, Orange, Harnett, Forsyth, Mecklenburg and Buncombe.

    FIVE YEARS: Five counties -- Davidson, Northampton, Alexander, Rutherford and Transylvania.

    SIX YEARS: Five counties -- Yadkin, Onslow, Burke, Durham and Randolph.

    SEVEN YEARS: Two counties -- Dare and Richmond.

    (N.C. TREASURER'S OFFICE)

In real estate, eight years can be an eternity.

In that time, home prices can rocket up -- or plummet. Downtown condos can become hot commodities, or they can sit empty in a cool market.

But in Wake County, at least, the tax assessment on those properties doesn't change.

Under state law, North Carolina's counties are only required to reassess real estate every eight years. But over the past two decades, nearly half of the state's counties have chosen to do it more frequently.

Now, some are suggesting that Wake do the same.

A county task force on preparing for growth will recommend this week that Wake reassess properties every four years to keep up with the real estate market.

The recommendation is included in a draft report that will be presented Thursday.

More frequent reassessments would mean that the county's tax values would be more accurate. That, in turn, would help ensure that the tax burden is fairly distributed among county residents.

But it wouldn't necessarily raise more money for the county, according to tax assessors.

"Reappraisals don't raise more revenue," said Emmett Curl, Wake County's revenue director. "It's much more fair the more frequently you do them, but it does not raise any more money."

That's because county commissioners usually lower the tax rate at the same time to offset the higher property values. If they don't, they still have to publicize what the lower rate would be.

"You can't use reassessments to disguise a tax increase," said John Smith, Orange County's tax assessor.

That means that more frequent reassessments wouldn't help ease Wake's current schools crunch, which led the school board to approve a $1.06 billion construction spending plan this month.

More frequent reassessments could help with "sticker shock," however.

Pete Rodda has been tax assessor in Forsyth County since the late 1980s, when it began reassessing properties every four years. At the time, the real estate market around Winston-Salem was hot.

"It wasn't uncommon at all to see property values double over eight years," he said.

Wake officials expect similar jumps when property values are reassessed in 2008. The last round, in 2000, led to an average increase in value of 43 percent.

After property values spiked in a 1992 reassessment, Wake administrators considered doing them every four years to "soften the blow," but county commissioners ultimately decided it would not make enough of a difference.

Forsyth County officials say that's not necessarily true.

Under a four-year cycle, Rodda said, assessments have still gone up, but they have been easier for the public to handle -- a 20 percent increase every four years, instead of a 40 percent increase every eight, for example.

Though it's more work for the county, Rodda said it has made his job a little easier.

"Under the old system, it wasn't uncommon for an assessor to get fired because someone was upset about how much real-estate values were going up," he said. "Things are more peaceful now."

Staff writer Ryan Teague Beckwith can be reached at 836-4944 or rbeckwit@newsobserver.com.

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