Equalization board undertakes review of extreme markdowns in black neighborhoods

Tax Assessor John Burgiss responds to questions from the board of equalization
Members of the Forsyth County Board of Equalization and Review committed to undertake a systematic review of tax reappraisals in troubled, predominantly African-American neighborhoods that have experienced an extreme markdown of values over the past four years.

The volunteer board, which is appointed by the county commission, faces a June 28 deadline by state statute to make any mass changes to property values.

"A lot of people are looking to this board to solve this problem," Chairman Richard N. Davis said during a regular meeting of the board today. "And we need to start coming up with some ideas on how we are to proceed to resolve some of these problems. I think the problem is so broad that we can't solve it on an individual basis. I think there are certain neighborhoods that have been severely affected by this that perhaps we might need to direct the staff to look at the entire neighborhood and come back and give us what they find."

As the sole African American on the five-member board, Davis has been bombarded by phone calls from concerned property owners on the east side of Winston-Salem at the urging of a group of pastors who led a series of community meetings a couple months ago. While expressing skepticism towards concerns about systematic error by the tax office, the other four members gave a respectful hearing to Davis' argument that the board needs to thoroughly examine tax data to address citizens' concerns.

"There is a feeling that the county is arbitrarily lowering the value of black neighborhoods," Davis said. "They look at this as disenfranchisement. A lot of these people, their homes are the most valuable thing they own. And some of these people have mortgages on their homes. And they have a house that used to be valued at $180,000; now that house is valued at $79,500. And so they've lost $100,000 in value. They have a mortgage of $120,000. The mortgage company is saying, 'Hey, you're underwater as far as we're concerned. Your house is now worth much less than what you owe on it. And you got to pay us more money or we're going to call your loan.'"    

Forsyth County Tax Assessor John Burgiss defended his staff's work.

"We believe that we have done everything right," he said, adding that all of the data is available on the tax department's website for people to review. 

"We want the right answer," Burgiss said. "All we want is to have an equitable distribution of taxation."

Board member David Shaw said he believes the reductions are most likely the result of economic realities rather than any error on staff's part.

"I don't have any prejudgment or pre-opinion," he said, "but I can tell you as a realtor that's on the street, what I see is that this thing is more nearly right than not." 

Davis said a news reporter tipped him off about a sale in which a house was sold at an auction and the buyer bid at $65,000, paid $25,000 down and then paid the balance of $40,000, adding that the county used both the down payment and the balance payment as qualified sales in its comparative analysis to arrive at appraisals for the entire neighborhood.

"We've got to make sure that some of these houses that's been severely devalued, we've got to make sure that we've got evidence to prove that the value the county placed on it was justifiable — that the county did not use disqualified sales in their comparisons," Davis told Burgiss. "I just want to throw some of those things out to put you on guard that some of those things are coming out and the county needs to be prepared to deal with it."

Burgiss responded that he would like to know those specific sales so his staff can look into the matter.

Board members asked staff to bring them data on several neighborhoods where they have either received complaints or observed severe drops, including Monticello Park, Castleshire, Northwood Estates, Cameron/Cleveland Avenue and Reynolds Park Road.

Davis cited an instance when a homeowner sold a house for $45,000 that had been previously valued at $169,000 because he was threatened with foreclosure if he didn't come up with his mortgage payment. Instead, he found someone to buy the house at a deep discount to avoid foreclosure.

Transactions resulting from a foreclosure or transactions that involve a lending institution are among those that the tax office excludes from its list of comparable sales. Not so for what are known as "short sales," which take place when a seller finds a buyer to preempt foreclosure.

"Short sales will cause us a little more problem to detect," Burgiss said. "Part of the decision that I made was to not expend the staff effort to try to locate short sales."  

Board member Marybeth Abdow said she doesn't believe it's practical for the tax department to go through every single sale to try to spot short sales.

Board member William V. White suggested that some of the troubled neighborhoods might have suffered from reductions in value because of what he called "downstream" sales in which a bank takes back a foreclosed property and sells it to an investor, who in turn makes minor, cosmetic improvements and sells it for a profit that is still well below its previous valuation. Davis submitted another term to describe the phenomenon: "Contaminated."

"I don't think there's any practical way to track these sales," White said, "and I don't think there's any statutory way we can count that as anything other than a qualified sale."

Burgiss acknowledged that if the county included bank sales in its analysis, the values of neighboring properties could be artificially depressed.

"We say, 'If it's wrong, then let us know,'" he said. "And if we can understand and verify what you're saying, we'll adjust it. If that happens and if there's enough errors in an area of course that could change the values derived from analyzing the market if you change the sales that you use. So we understand that. We're open to that. We know that if you change enough of those sales, then you change your answer."

Davis said  he once worked at Wachovia Bank and that at one time the bank refused to lend in certain "red-lined" areas of Winston-Salem because property values were so low the bank didn't deem them as worthy of investment. The legacy of disenfranchisement from such historic practices makes it imperative that the board of equalization avoid any perception that it's practices are historic inequity, he suggested.

"We're going to have to come up with some way to let these people know that this is not a systematic thing on the part of the county or anybody else to take value out of their property, that these things happen because of economic conditions," he said. "But what we've got to make sure of, is that the value on these homes was not reduced because of sales that should not have been included in the comps. We're not supposed to use distressed sales. We're only supposed to use fair-market, arms-length transactions. And we need to make sure this is the case. We need to look at these homes and we need to look at these neighborhoods and see if we're justified in the low values that some of them have."

WANNA GO? The Forsyth County Board of Equalization and Review is still deliberating on whether to allow public comments at regular meetings, which are typically scheduled every Thursday at 3 p.m. But the board will hold a special meeting on Monday, May 13 at which they will allow citizens to speak for five minutes. All meetings take place in the Board of Equalization and Review meeting room on the first floor of the Forsyth County Government Center, located at 201 N. Chestnut St. in Winston-Salem.

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