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Board prepares to hear appeals to Forsyth County property appraisals

by Jordan Green

 jordan@yesweekly.com

Avolunteer citizen board appointed by the Forsyth County Commission convened last week to prepare to hear appeals from property owners to tax reappraisals by the county’s tax office.

The board of equalization and review elected Richard N. Davis, the only African-American member, as its chair, and David Shaw as its vice chair. All five members, including Marybeth Abdow and William V. White, are carryovers from previous year with the exception of Harvey Pardue, who is a former Forsyth County Tax Assessor.

“Basically, you’re here so the taxpayers have due process,” said Tony Simpson, a real-property valuation specialist with the NC Department of Revenue during the board’s organizational meeting. “And that’s your function — to support the Constitution and the laws of the United States.”

“Any errors — hopefully, the tax assessor’s office has caught any errors that remain — you guys have the authority to make any corrections,” Simpson continued. “This board is basically the tax assessor now, and you operate with the same authorities and powers he does, except you’re doing it with a fivemember panel.”

The tax office has received 5,082 informal appeals, which comprises 3.2 percent of all properties, Tax Assessor John Burgiss said after the meeting. That’s the lowest percentage in the past five cycles, with the figure typically running at about 5 percent.

In a typical revaluation year, appeals from property owners who want their values lowered vastly outnumber those who contend that their properties were not appraised high enough. This year, Burgiss said, the ratios are about 50-50.

When the tax valuations were sent out in February, many black property owners reacted with shock and anger at reappraisals that showed deep reductions in value from 2009 to 2013. Residents from predominantly African-American neighborhoods on the city’s east side such as Monticello Park attending a series of community meetings complained that their property valuations had declined by 55 to 70 percent.

Many vowed to appeal their valuations on an individual basis, but several elected and community leaders began to explore options for legislative or local policy action to systematically review the entire reappraisal process.

“I think there needs to be some way to look at stabilized communities regardless of where they are and acknowledge the value of those properties, to look at those communities on the east side that were built, developed and maintained that should be in a comparable situation with similar properties in the west,” said Joycelyn Johnson, a community leader and former Winston-Salem City Council member. “I.e., if you have split-level ranch houses that were built at the same time, why is the loss of value so different from one area to the next?” Johnson noted that the tax office rated the functional and economic obsolescence for many properties on the east side at more than 50 percent —the amount of value subtracted for the structure — while houses in historic areas were rated with 0 percent functional and economic obsolescence. She wants to know what accounts for the discrepancy and how the tax office arrived at the different values.

Burgiss said at that time that in some rare instances his office has recognized that errors were made for entire neighborhoods, and that the tax office asked the board of equalization and review to change the values. A set of maps produced by the tax office showed that the same areas on the east side that experienced deep devaluations have also undergone high rates of foreclosure while at the same time having relatively few qualified sales — arms length transactions between willing buyers and sellers in which neither party is under duress or pressure — to establish market values.

Burgiss said the board of equalization of review has received 850 formal appeals. Any Forsyth County property owner may appeal directly to the board and any property owners who previously appealed to the tax office and disagree with staff’s determination may make an additional appeal to the board. The deadline for both categories of appeals in June 28, when the board formally adjourns.

June 28 is also the deadline for the board to make any mass changes to property valuations, Tony Simpson with the NC Department of Revenue told board members.

“The big thing in revaluation years is it’s also the last day that you guys have what we call a ‘magic wand’ in the tax business,” Simpson said. “Before adjournment you can make mass changes. In other words if I come in here and make an argument to you and you find out based on that information that there’s a problem with a specific subdivision or an area and you feel like it needs to be addressed, if you’re not adjourned you can not only make changes to my property, you can make changes to other folks’ properties.”

Simpson also said that after adjournment, the board can continue to review individual appeals that have already been filed through the end of the year.

The June 28 deadline puts pressure on the board to address any concerns about systematic or neighborhood-wide errors as early as possible. Chairman Davis said he plans to have the board start working on that at its next meeting on Monday. He added that he has asked the tax office to present data on sales ratios, which compare the 2013 reappraisal to recent qualified sales at that meeting.

“We’ll look at the neighborhood patterns,” Davis said. “They can’t refer to the specific sales that were influenced by foreclosures and distressed sales in their reappraisals. If it applies to the majority of the houses in the neighborhood, then I think we need to address the entire neighborhood.”

John Potter, real estate division manager for the Forsyth County Tax Department, told board members that staff plans to provide them with information about specific neighborhoods for their review. After the meeting he declined to cite any particular neighborhoods.

“That’s what we wanted to do, is leave time for discussion about any mass changes or areas of concern,” Potter said.

Simpson said believes the time period — about two months — is an adequate amount of time for the board to obtain the information needed “to make mass changes if evidence comes to your attention that there are issues or problems in the county.”

Davis said he has received numerous phone calls from property owners who are concerned about reappraisal values being depressed in certain neighborhoods. He added that he doesn’t know how his fellow board members feel about the matter because he has purposefully avoided private conversations with other members to ensure that any discussions will be held in open meetings that have been appropriately advertised to the public.

After the meeting Pardue, the former tax assessor, expressed confidence that the staff has adequately reviewed areas of concern to ensure that only qualified, recent sales were considered in the reappraisal.

Shaw said he looks forward to seeing the tax office’s presentation.

“I’d be cautious about coming to any initial conclusion without reviewing the data,” he said. “It’s really too early in this process for me to have an opinion.”

Davis said he thinks the board’s need to spend its time reviewing individual appeals will make it impractical to schedule a public comment period. For that reason, the board has scheduled a special meeting for hearing public comment on May 13.

Johnson said that while she is happy that the board has a process for receiving public input, she wants them to get out in the field.

“What I would like for them to do is come out and see some of the things we see,” she said. “The majority of them I think have a preconceived notion of what these neighborhoods are.

Perceptions are not reality in many cases. To do even a windshield tour and look at some of these neighborhoods, they would see that nothing has really changed from four years ago other than that the properties have been well maintained.”

WANNA go?

The Forsyth County Board of Equalization and Review meets on Thursday at 3 p.m. in the Board of Equalization and Review Room on the first floor of the Forsyth County Government Center, located at 201 N. Chestnut St. in Winston-Salem. The board holds a separate special meeting at the same location on May 13 at 6 p.m. to hear public comment.

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