ASHEVILLE – As Buncombe County’s Ad Hoc Reappraisal Committeerolls toward a goal of recommending ways the property assessment process can become more equitable, they now have a slight conundrum on their hands: varying perspectives on the same issue.
Two experts in recent months presented deep and broad studies on Buncombe’s property assessment process and whether or not it had racist or inequitable features baked in.
One presenter was Tom Tveidt, a research economist and president of Syneva Economics in Asheville, who has worked with the county before and contributed to studies and economic growth expertise in Western North Carolina.
Buncombe paid his firm $27,000 for the report, which he presented March 9.
The Syenva presentation concluded data didn’t show inequity was a problem in how Buncombe assesses property values, though it did note many Buncombe properties had been underassessed and some over-assessed during the past six years.
The other expert was Joe Minicozzi, a principal at Urban3, urban planner and property value expert living in Asheville. Minicozzi’s presentation on potential inequities in assessment practices was what led Buncombe County Board of Commissioners to create the ad hoc committee.
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They voted to do so in September 2021 after hearing Minicozzi’s presentation earlier that year, a 300-hour project undertaken by Urban3 employees — including Ori Baber, who is on the committee — pro bono.
Minicozzi’s presentation said historical factors, zoning and district practices and numerous other elements in urban planning continue to be forces for inequity in Buncombe, as they are across the nation. He challenged committee members to interrogate current practices and search the system for potential human and systemic biases.
April 20 was the first time committee members heard the presentation from Minicozzi himself, an informational session that had several moments of tension.
Buncombe County Assessor Keith Miller, who has been present at committee meetings since they started in November, took issue with some data Minicozzi presented, in one instance noting a percentage increase of two homes Minicozzi showed was inaccurate by about 100%.
Minicozzi said “OK,” and asked to continue the presentation.
Ultimately, committee members were asked to write questions down and save them until the end of the presentation.
Though the meeting was set to end at 7 p.m., the committee stayed until 7:30 p.m.
Chair called on committee to hear original presentation
To some leaders, Minicozzi’s presentation was long overdue.
The group held eight meetings since Nov. 17 without hearing the presentation that formed the committee in the first place.
When Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Chair Brownie Newman noticed this — he said he’s been watching the meetings online — he emailed committee members and county staff Feb. 28.
“I … want to encourage the committee to hear from a representative of Urban3 as part of the research and due diligence process you are involved in,” Newman said in that email.
“Although some of the questions about the perception that more modest homes and properties may be over-assessed through revaluation processes had begun to receive some attention in national media coverage, it was really the analysis that Urban3 helped develop in Buncombe County that led the county commissioners to be interested in exploring these issues within our community.”
He went on to say he understood committee members might generally be aware of the issues Urban3 would raise and hoped they would consider Buncombe-specific analysis the firm’s presentation contained.
“One conclusion reached by Urban3 is that there is, at a county-wide level, a tendency to over-value modest homes and properties and to under-value more high-end homes and properties through the revaluation process,” Newman said in the email.
“I think the commissioners are hoping the ad hoc committee can help us determine if this premise is accurate or not, and I think it would be helpful to hear from them directly and see their analysis to help answer that question.”
Committee members after receiving Newman’s email debated whether or not to allow Minicozzi to present, but ultimately decided he should.
While the Urban3 study Minicozzi presented April 20 didn’t contradict the Syneva conclusions point by point, it did question its ability to “judge equity.”
Specifically, Minicozzi noted he had “a pretty big beef about the boundaries” Syneva’s report used. That report listed 27 different Buncombe “communities” by grouping census tracts. Minicozzi said he preferred a model using, among other things, ungrouped census tracts.
“If you’re going to be measuring matters of equity with race, those maps aren’t granular enough to get sufficient data, and that’s just my take on it,” Minicozzi said of the communities.
Syneva’s report used what Miller and other county staff have characterized as a “different methodology” to study inequity in property tax values.
“Community, race, ethnicity or poverty didn’t correlate to higher assessments,” that report said.
But it also noted 18 of the 27 communities it analyzed showed home sale sale prices were higher in neighborhoods with higher household incomes and lower home sale prices in neighborhoods with lower incomes and a higher number of Black households.
‘It can be confusing’
In the coming months, committee members will be tasked with weighing the two reports, the professional education and the internal conversation they’ve had in order to create a list of recommendations for how to improve the assessment process, if at all.
They already have expressed interest in better community education and outreach, especially for those who want to appeal their property tax value, a figure established by sales and cost data of nearby property.
“There are a lot of data points in this tax system,” Miller said in an interview.
He said the most important thing in analyzing assessment practices is having good, “clean” data and understanding what it is.
“You have to understand what it means, what it’s related to, where it comes from. Some from the general public look at the data and make some assumptions, but they don’t always understand what’s baked into that data. It can be difficult. It can be confusing.”
Complexity and confusion have been major themes of discussion through the course of the meetings, but committee members expressed a desire to bring more clarity to the process, especially for people seeing their home values and property taxes skyrocket during a hot housing market.
Concluding his presentation, Minicozzi encouraged the committee to investigate not only the data but the policies, procedures and laws that go into creating it.
“We need to have the courage to understand and change the system,” the final slide of his presentation stated.
At the end of his report Minicozzi also quoted DeWayne Barton, founder and CEO of Asheville-based Hood Huggers International, a organization that wants to “rebuild Affrilachia” through art, environment and social enterprise.
“When we try to address it, we talk about it in silos,” Barton said, speaking on racial inequity. “But we need to address it the same way it was implemented. It was policy, blood, and resources all the way from the feds all the way down right into the neighborhoods itself. And it trips me out that we’re not addressing the problem the same way.”
Andrew Jones is Buncombe County government and health care reporter for the Asheville Citizen Times, part of the USA TODAY Network. Reach him at @arjonesreports on Facebook and Twitter, 828-226-6203 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Please help support this type of journalism with a subscription to the Citizen Times.