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Fryar Seeks Way to Mitigate Tax Avalanches

By Leslee Kulba- During a work session presentation by Buncombe County Tax Collector Jennifer Pike, Commissioner Mike Fryar took the opportunity to once again advocate for the poor.

  1. Unlike the lobby for free needles for drug users that would again make a request at the commissioners’ formal meeting, these weren’t the cool poor. They weren’t an organized special interest guaranteed to pull votes on the campaign trail. These were old-timers with deep roots in the community, trying to keep the family homestead on a fixed income.

After seeing Buncombe County ranked second in the state for counties of its size in tax collections, with a rate of 99.8%, Fryar said, “There’s gotta be a little help somewhere.” During the meeting, Fryar would give four anecdotes of people being forced out of their homes.

The first, told before, concerned the man who said he was eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and wondering when he’d have to give up the jelly. The second was about a resident who had paid off a 30-year mortgage only to now make comparable payments on his property taxes.

The third story concerned a couple living in an old truck and sleeping in a McDonald’s parking lot after being evicted from their trailer for failure to pay property taxes. Fryar said the lady did not look well, so he gave them something “out of his commissioner’s salary.” The fourth was about a taxpayer who had made half his payments in accordance with an installment agreement set up with the county, but since he was a landscaper, funds were thin in the winter. He told Fryar the county wouldn’t accept his payments afterward, so he had to go through an attorney.

Commissioner Al Whitesides, who Fryar pointed out was a fellow septuagenarian, had heard similar stories about “leeches” and “sharks” avalanching $400 in delinquent taxes into $3,000 with legal fees. He described at least one lawyer as having no office but only a cell phone and a post office box. “We could do a better job of helping these people out,” he said. “Some people struggle.”

Pike explained foreclosure is the last step in the county’s collection process. Other actions include bank attachment, garnishment, and levies. County Manager Avril Pinder said the county will not turn collections over to an outside attorney unless a citizen “stops talking to us” for two or three months. Then, once that person gets a letter from an attorney, they have 14 days to re-establish communications with the county.

Commissioner Joe Belcher asked if the county couldn’t work with an in-house attorney, and County Attorney Mike Frue said letterhead from a lawyer elicits more response than letterhead from the county. Fryar and Belcher asked if the county couldn’t then contract with a lawyer to send demand letters for a reasonable fee, and Frue said he didn’t think any attorney would be persuaded to use their position and letterhead to “conceivably give an empty threat.” Whitesides asked if the county couldn’t issue an RFQ for attorneys, and he was told they had.

This time, five people responded, so there will now be five attorneys in the rotation instead of just three.
Pike added 138,723 property tax bills were mailed in 2018, 1,345 of which led to collection actions. This year, 437 accounts have been handed over to attorneys, and the number has remained fairly consistent in recent years. Since January 18, the county has foreclosed on twelve properties: five were land only, four were owned by parties in another state, two were condemned, and one was abandoned.

Also, this year, 3,263 people have arranged to pay their taxes in installments, an option Pike said was popular and becoming increasingly so with each passing year.

Next Up –
Following that discussion of people fearing foreclosure for $400 in delinquent taxes, and without any sense of irony, Community Development Director Matt Cable gave the commissioners a preview of requests for funding for affordable housing projects. Habitat for Humanity wanted $680,800 added to the $240,000 already approved for the Old Haywood Road Project. It would provide $20,000 per-unit in down payment assistance for 38 units, the balance constituting a construction loan. Terms of the loan had not yet been negotiated, Fryar in the past having called attention to other affordable housing loans with terms so long, county management did not expect to be repaid.

Cable also said the county’s Affordable Housing Committee had recommended splitting $312,092, passed through the City of Asheville from the federal HOME program, among six projects. The county would further provide an $87,908 match to Workforce Homestead for the Jasper Project, a $15 million, 100-unit rental complex expecting to receive $10 million in tax credits; and $35,306 for down payment assistance split among four homes in another, 23-unit Habitat development referred to as the Brevard Road Project.

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