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LIGHTNING EDITORIAL: Too soon to panic over tax bill

Commissioner Daniel Andreotta sounded the alarm last week after anxious taxpayers filled his inbox and voicemail with questions about the new countywide property revaluation.

Homeowners and business owners had just opened their new Notice of Value and learned that their property values had spiked.

“And they’re doing the quick math and (telling the commissioner), ‘My property went up 40 percent, 60 percent, 80 percent. The taxes are gonna kill me.’”

Andreotta’s response to what he seemed to regard as widespread panic was to immediately declare that he will support only a revenue neutral tax rate (or one “negligibly” higher) and, furthermore, to insist that commissioners commit to a tax rate by mid-March.

“I’m afraid if we wait till we adopt a budget in June a lot of damage is gonna be done that could be avoided,” he said.

Acceding to Andreotta’s abrupt and imprudent proposal is what would have caused damage —to the County Commission’s sound and thoughtful process for drafting a budget this year.

We’ll try to unpack what happens in a revaluation year and maybe talk the Hon. Andreotta off the ledge at the same time.

Henderson County reaped the benefit, one might say, when the vagaries of the calendar and economic cycles stamped the effective date of its quadrennial revaluation at Jan. 1, 2023. That meant that a lot of home sales in the boom years of 2019 through 2022 — and especially 2021 through spring of 2022 — became the basis for appraising home values, which rose at a far higher clip than business property.

Taxpayers are dreading the tax bill the county will send out later this summer, griping that commissioners won the lottery at their expense. The fact is the tax rate will go down; commissioners all pledged to that last week. By how much no one knows because the revaluation process is not over. We’re on chapter 9 of a 10-chapter story. Informal appeals just started last week — and spiked from 125 last Wednesday to 721 on Monday. Next come formal appeals to the Board of Equalization & Review — which tend to be properties with lawyers and the highest values. Other commissioners or county budget managers also pointed out that sales tax, utility tax and other revenue can’t be reliably projected for 2023-24 until closer to July 1.

Setting a tax rate now — especially one that commissioners would be publicly declaring to be “revenue neutral” — would require commissioners to hurry up and decide whether to commit to a $150 million courthouse-jail addition, set the pay raises for sheriff’s deputies, jailers, EMTs, maintenance workers, planners and librarians and fling a dart at a public schools budget, which accounts for a third of the county’s total.

In sounding the alarm, Commissioner Andreotta was responding to constituents’ concerns, and that’s understandable. The discussion he provoked may even have calmed some of the anxiety homeowners were expressing to him.

But to set a rate now, as Commission Chair Rebecca McCall warned, would be to “rush it and miss something.”

Commissioners have for several cycles now made the revaluation year the trigger to draft a four-year plan on the spending side, too — projecting big capital investments, debt service, new personnel, ongoing payroll growth and other longer range expenses. By doing so, commissioners have committed — and kept the promise — to keeping the tax rate level until the next reappraisal. To renew that commitment in 2023, commissioners ought to adhere to the sound, thorough, transparent and cautious budget-drafting process that’s proved successful and reliable in the past.