Valuations of local homes and businesses have gone up 30-40 percent in many cases, a sign that the price of living here is going up considerably
By Richard Sullins, Gordon Anderson and Billy Liggett
It wasn’t a surprise that his family’s home in the Westlake Valley subdivision in west Sanford went up in value after this year’s property value reassessments were announced in February. But Terry Russell was still shocked to see how much his home was worth in the Lee County tax collector’s eyes.
“Our tax value went up about 52 percent [since 2016],” Russell said. “It’s my hope that [Lee County’s tax rate] will be revenue neutral this year. If it’s not, we’re screwed.”
Russell’s not the only one experiencing sticker shock with property assessments this spring. Many Lee County property owners faced the same reality — that the cost of living here has officially gone up considerably — when they received their government mail in mid-February showing the reappraised values of their homes and businesses.
Values since the last reappraisal — conducted in January 2019 — have skyrocketed, many in the 30 to 40 percent range and some, like Russell, over 50 percent from the previous valuation. The rising price tags are a function of a real estate market that has exploded in the last four years, particularly after being flat for at least half a decade before that.
Public reaction to this wasn’t a surprise — many, particularly in online forums, bristled at their new values and assumed this would necessarily result in an increase to their property taxes. And it may. But it also may not. That’s because the revaluation (required by state law at least once every eight years; Lee County Commissioners have a policy to do one every four) is just the first step in how local taxes increase, decrease or stay the same.
The next step is for the Lee County’s tax administration to deal with as many informal appeals from property owners as possible (around 1,100 as of the end of March) and then take up any formal appeals before the Board of Equalization and Review during the month of April and into early May.
Russell said while his assessment could be costly, it falls in line with newly assessed values of homes on his street; therefore, he doesn’t see the point in appealing the new value. The same can’t be said for Karla (she asked for her full name to be omitted because of her appeal), whose property value has gone up 53 percent since she purchased her home — also in west Sanford — in 2021. The house was reassessed in 2022 (as is common with newly purchased homes) and assessed again this year — both leading to large value increases.
“We renovated our house [after we bought it], and the tax department came to inspect it,” she says. “They came to the house before the construction was done, and since we were essentially making a ‘new house’ — new plumbing, electric and HVAC — they said we’d be taxed at the highest rate, even though we took it down from a five-bedroom home to a four-bedroom. We’ve thought about appealing, but I’m not sure of the grounds we can use to appeal such a huge increase.”
Karla may have grounds, actually, according to the Reappraisal Brochure available at the Lee County Government website. The county states that a property owner must provide documentation and evidence if they believe an appraised value is substantially higher or lower than market value. One of the accepted documents is proof of a recent appraisal, in addition to market analysis or data of similar or nearby homes.
DOES THIS MEAN HIGHER TAX PAYMENTS?
Only after all assessments have been completed and all appeals answered by the Lee County tax assessor will local government know the total value of all taxable property within its borders, or its tax base. And only then can county commissioners set the tax rate for the next fiscal year.
Proposing a budget — and recommending a tax rate — for fiscal year 2023-24 will also be a challenge for new County Manager Lisa Minter, who assumed the role on March 1 following the retirement of Dr. John Crumpton after 16 years at the helm.
Luckily for Minter, she’s new to this job, but not new to the process. Much of her time in county government has been in the Finance Office with long hours spent poring over reams of numbers and preparing seemingly endless reports. But it’s also there where her leadership-by-example has carried on a string of recognitions by the Certificate of Achievement for Excellence in Financial Reporting for 26 consecutive years. She’s put in the work to get to where she is.
Minter is the county’s seventh manager, and this budget will be the first with her name on the top line. And that work is going to be even harder than usual this time.
Two years ago, Lee County’s budget for fiscal year 2021-22 was $84 million, and the commissioners set the property tax rate at 77.5 cents per $100 of property valuation. The population then was just over 61,000 people. By the time the 2022-23 fiscal year began last July 1, the number of people living in the county had grown to about 63,000. Commissioners adopted a $90 million budget but were still able to reduce the tax rate to an even 76 cents because of the county’s strong economic growth.
As the county begins to approach the midpoint of its third decade in the 21st century, the Census Bureau estimates that almost 65,000 people make their home here. That statistic suggests that the county’s budget for fiscal year 2023-24 could come close to $100 million.
The Republicans controlling the board have long expressed a desire to cut Lee County’s property tax rate, so in theory the increase in property taxes brought about by the reappraisal gives them an opportunity to do so on a relatively large scale. But without a full picture of the tax base, it’s impossible to know just yet what tax rate would represent “revenue neutral,” which means generating the same amount of revenue as the prior year, and therefore impossible to know just yet whether property owners will see a true tax decrease (or increase).
Property taxes, or sometimes known as “ad valorem” taxes, provide the lion’s share of revenue for the county’s budget every year. Sales taxes are another major source of revenue. But to even further complicate the task of arriving at solid numbers for the coming year’s budget, sales tax receipts are now on the decline.
“There is no doubt that the county has seen unprecedented growth in sales tax revenues the last few years,” Minter said. “However, the peak in that growth occurred in 2020-21 when the county saw an 18.77 percent growth in sales tax. In fiscal year 2021-22, the growth rate dropped to 12.77 percent, and in the current year we are currently looking at a growth rate of 9.76 percent.”
The current year’s budget was built on a growth projection of 7 percent.
Minter said with efforts underway now by the Federal Reserve to try to slow down spending and keep inflation from rising, “we need to be conservative in budgeting sales taxes in the next year.”
But if those sales tax numbers continue to be strong and turn out to be better than projected, that circumstance will become a part of the larger budget calculus that will determine where the property tax rate needs to be set.
Minter says even units of government like the county are not immune to inflation’s effects.
“It is costing us more at the gas station, grocery store and office supply store to run the programs that the county offers,” she said. “So, the budget for fiscal year 23-24 will be larger than 22-23.”
Another wrinkle comes in the form of a county financial policy that requires the adoption of a tax rate that considers the succeeding four years’ anticipated expenditures and plans not to change the tax rate until the next revaluation.
Many county departments will be asking for increased budgets next year. At the commissioners’ meeting on March 20, Minter reported that 20 new positions have already been requested and 30 others have been proposed for reclassification on the county’s salary scale. The costs of personnel make up, by far, the largest slice of any organization’s budget and the county is no exception.
In addition to ensuring that the county’s regular operating costs for the next four years can be met, the costs of opening up two new facilities must also be added to the spreadsheet. The multi-sports complex and the new library will be coming online and providing services before the next revaluation occurs in 2027. The revenue projections made this spring will have to make allowances for them, too.
These same items are on the radar screen of County Commission Chairman Kirk Smith, in addition to a pay scale study for county employees. Smith believes “the pressures on our current (property) values come from the attraction of Lee County,” and he remains characteristically optimistic that everything will get done.
“We intend to reduce the tax rate while meeting our new budget items,” he told The Rant.
Minter agrees that things will settle out over the next few weeks and the picture will become much clearer soon.
“We have not received all budget requests or the new tax base from the tax administrator, so I cannot say for sure what the (tax) rate will do. However, I do anticipate it will come down,” she said.
Robby Westbrook has already appealed his assessment. He and his wife purchased their home in Sanford in December 2021, and the new assessment is $63,000 more than the purchase price just 15 months ago. The previous assessment was $153,000 less. He figures the “market value” of his home is somewhere in between his purchase price and the new assessment.
“I don’t know if that is as extreme as others, but it’s significant for one year and for sure higher than market value,” he says. “We should ask the commissioners what their plans are for tax increases … I’ve heard from multiple people [who fear] their taxes are going to go up.”
Lee County Tax Administrator Michael Brown describes the revaluation as “an education,” and he noted a number of approaches used to arrive at what he called “true value.”
“We divide the county into 240 neighborhoods, and I’m sure some of those have grown at different rates or levels,” he says. “We’ve taken those neighborhoods and tried to arrive at true value through (comparable) sales or comparing to a similar or like neighborhood. Our standard we have to use is January 2019, and how the value has changed over that four year period — it’s not just one year to the next.”
Brown said appeals that aren’t resolved before the Board of Equalization and Review convenes will be handled by that body, and not his office. Taxpayers can file formal appeals through May 2.
“If a taxpayer files an appeal and says (the value) is too high, we like to see documentation — comparable sales or factual information that makes the property different than some of the comparables we’ve been looking at – so we can have something to work with,” he says.
But in a formal appeal before the Board of Equalization and Review, the taxpayer presents their information, and Brown’s department presents theirs — leaving the final decision in the Board’s hands. The state requires cities and counties to adopt annual budgets by the last day of June.
John Ramsperger of Sanford Real Estate said the spike in property values isn’t a surprise to him.
“In the last two weeks, I’ve received lots of calls from people who wanted to appeal, and in every instance it was seen that the county was fair in their assessment and was actually below what I’d call retail value for the market,” says Ramsperger, who formerly served on the county’s Board of Equalization and Review.
“Over the last four years, some people’s property values have gone up 40 to 50 percent, and probably 20 to 25 percent of that is in the last year. It’s data driven; it’s not emotional. And it’s also not Lee County trying to do a money grab.”
Rampserger also points to recent expansions and/or relocations of major industry as something that plays a role, if not directly in the rise in property values, at least in the ability of the county to lower the tax rate.
“You’ve got all these new sources of revenue from major industries that just weren’t there until a few years ago, and that takes a lot of the pressure off the backs of the average taxpayer,” he says.
WHAT IS PROPERTY REAPPRAISAL?
Reappraisal is the process that updates the assessed value of each piece of real property to market value. A reappraisal must be done at least once every eight
years according to the North Carolina General Statute §105-286. Lee County has shortened this time period to every four years. According to the Lee County Government website, “the goal of a reappraisal is to appraise all property at its current market value so that each property is only assessed at its fair share of the tax burden.” Personal property is not part of this process as it is appraised annually.
According to Lee County Government, property values are not established by the appraiser or the tax office. People who buy and sell real estate in the open market establish market values. “Our North Carolina State certified in-house property tax appraisers diligently and carefully research and analyze those sales in our local market to determine an estimate of market value for all properties, as we are required to do by law,” the county tax office states in its 2023 appraisal brochure.
Depending upon the data available and the type of property being appraised, there are several methods an appraiser may use to determine value:
• Sales Comparison Approach: The method most commonly used and it compares your property with a similar one, less any depreciation.
• Cost Approach: This method determines how much it would cost to replace your property with a similar one, less any depreciation.
• Income Approach: This method determines the value of income producing properties, such as apartments, based upon the amount of income the property generates.
— Source: Lee County Government
WHAT DOES ‘MARKET VALUE’ MEAN?
According to the Lee County tax office, “market value” or “true value” as defined by the Machinery Act of North Carolina is “the price estimated in terms of money at which the property would change hands between a willing and financially able buyer and a willing seller, neither being under any compulsion to buy or sell and
both having reasonable knowledge of all the uses to which the property is adapted and for which it is capable of being used.”
HOW DO YOU MAKE AN APPEAL?
The deadline for an informal appeal has ended, but formal appeals are set to begin soon. These are hearings made typically by appointment before the Lee County Board of Equalization and Review. If you’re not satisfied with this review, you may appeal to the state. Acceptable appeal documents include: recent appraisals, market analysis, copies of surveys, photos of structural damage or needed repairs and date on recent sales in the area. Visit leecountync.gov to learn more about the process.