For North Carolina counties, fiscal 2018 starts July 1, meaning counties have to pass and publish budgets. They also have to set property tax rates for the coming year, which are really important for county governments.
The most obvious reason is property taxes make up just more than half of all county revenue. They are, by far, the largest single source of money counties have. They’re also set at the discretion of the counties. County commissioners can raise and lower them each year as they please, with few limitations.
Consequently, rates vary hugely across the state. Finally, property tax revenue can be used for anything counties are legally allowed to do. They’re unrestricted funds. Property taxes also matter a lot to residents. Again, the reasons for this are obvious. As of 2014, county property taxes totaled about $6.5 billion across the state. That’s just the county property taxes. Cities impose property taxes, too, but those aren’t included in the $6.5 billion figure. And they affect everyone.
We pay property taxes on our homes and our cars. If we rent, the landlord pays property tax, so it gets rolled into the rent we pay. Businesses pay it on their premises, so it gets passed along to consumers in the price of the goods we buy. We pay property taxes. Which means we all benefit when those rates are lower, leaving us with more money in our own pockets. We all should be concerned about whether our county commissioners are raising rates, lowering rates, or keeping rates the same.
So, with the beginning of the fiscal year looming, I decided to take a look at what was happening to rates around the state, and I found several significant things. I had trouble finding information for lot of counties. For 35 counties, I could find nothing at all. This probably reflects the fact some counties do a great job of getting information online, while others don’t. Still others have the information online somewhere, but not in an easily searchable form.
Lesson No. 1 is counties should work on improving the access their residents have to information that’s as important as property tax rate changes. It’s just a basic principle of transparent government. Thirty-nine counties aren’t planning to change their rates in 2018, and I commend them. There are always more requests for money and pressures on county budgets. The fact that at least 39 counties have resisted those pressures and have held taxes steady is a good thing for residents and businesses. Eight counties did even better, and they actually lowered property tax rates.
Of the counties I’ve found so far, New Hanover is the winner in this category, with a cut in the property tax rate of a little more than 5 cents per $100 of property value. In 18 counties, property tax rates are going up. Oftentimes this is because property taxes are a percent of the property value, and counties have to conduct a reevaluation of those property values at least every eight years. If the values go down, then, to take in the same amount of revenue, the rate has to go up. So, areas where rates are increasing are the very same areas weaker economic conditions are driving property values down.
This makes for a toxic combination.
For most people, property is their single largest asset and the most valuable thing they own. When property values drop, so does their net worth. Put more simply, a drop in property values makes them poorer. To increase the rate in that situation seems to me to be, essentially, kicking folks when they’re down. This isn’t what local governments should be about.
Rather than raising taxes on people who are seeing the value of their homes and businesses fall, counties should keep property taxes as low as possible. This keeps money in taxpayers’ pockets, lets them invest in their businesses, allows them to spend money in the local economy, and makes it easier for them to provide for their families. If that means counties have to spend a little less, then so be it.
Long term, keeping money in the hands of consumers and business owners will be far better for the local economy than sucking it away to fund bigger government.