Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Hate tax revaluation time? Then let’s do it more often. Seriously.

Tear-downs that make way for large new houses, like these in the Cherry neighborhood, drive up property values of smaller, older houses nearby. Photo: Mary Newsom
It’s tax revaluation time! Are you excited? We aren’t either. Seeing your property value skyrocket is only fun if you are planning to sell it ASAP.  For most of us who aren’t real estate speculators, higher values don’t mean more money shoots into our bank accounts, because we can’t easily convert property into extra income unless we decide to raise goats, chickens or marijuana in the back yard.

Nevertheless, revaluations are an important equity tool. If you wait years to do them, you’re giving a tax benefit to wealthier property owners with rising values and giving a comparative tax penalty to properties whose values did not go up as much, or not at all.

If that sounds confusing, read on.

Mecklenburg County has been revaluing its property every seven or eight years. That means someone whose mansion was valued at (we’ll keep to round numbers here) $1 million at the last valuation has been paying taxes on that figure, even though that same mansion is now valued at $3 million. So $2 million of its value has been, essentially, tax free for some of those eight years.

Now, consider someone whose house was worth $100,000 eight years ago and is now worth $150,000. Yes, they’ve gotten $50,000 in value tax free for some of those eight years. But ... compare that with $2 million.

Finally, someone whose property value went down has been paying taxes on a value that’s too high. For this particular revaluation there aren’t likely to be many who fit that description, since the 2011 revaluation came amid a deep real estate slump with hundreds of foreclosures, followed by recent years of dramatically higher land prices.

In 1990, then-Charlotte Observer reporters Liz Chandler and Foon Rhee did an exhaustive comparison of land sales prices versus assessed values from the previous revaluation in 1983. They wrote:

“Thousands of Mecklenburg County homeowners will pay more than their share of property taxes this year. And their extra taxes will allow tax benefits for a smaller group of homeowners – most with higher-priced homes. Property is being taxed unfairly because county officials are not keeping up-to-date tax values on homes, according to an Observer study of 3,425 home sales last year. That’s because the tax office only appraises property countywide once every four years.” [In recent years the county has revalued every seven or eight years.]

The reporters explained:

“If the tax burden was evenly spread this year – the last year before a new appraisal – all homeowners would pay taxes on 83 percent of the market value of their homes, the study indicates. But that isn’t the case. Areas where home values have risen sharply are likely to be taxed on less than 83 percent. And slower-growing, low- and middle-income areas are more likely to be taxed on more than 83 percent.”

The Observer research, comparing sales prices to assessed tax value, found that during those years county tax officials generally undervalued commercial property more than residential property. That means residential property owners were, in essence, subsidizing business properties. Commercial properties were, on average, assessed and taxed at 65 percent of their market value, the newspaper found, compared to an overall property valuation countywide of 79 percent of its market value. (County tax officials responded that commercial property was harder to assess.)

Some important caveats are needed:

One: A tax revaluation does not automatically mean everyone’s tax bill rises. Elected officials set a tax rate, and they can lower the rate so that, on average, no one’s bill goes up. But if your property is above or below the average, your tax bill would still change, going up or down, depending. If you’re a politician, you know rising property values will have many voters angry, even before the tax rate is set. So if they’re going to be angry regardless, it’s tempting to go ahead and bring in a bit more revenue by not setting a so-called “revenue-neutral” tax rate, since city and county needs are growing along with the population.

Two: According to analysis from Charlotte Observer writers Ely Portillo and Gavin Off, some of the highest percentage increases in value this year are in close-in, predominantly black areas: Grier Heights, Washington Heights, Druid Hills, Villa Heights and Belmont. “On average, property values in those neighborhoods increased by 126 to 156 percent. Many individual properties doubled or even tripled in value,” the Observer wrote.

That means “equity” in property assessments this year could look inequitable, if low-income and minority property owners are hit with proportionately higher tax values. (See Her home’s tax value nearly tripled.)

There is a better way. Revalue property more often. Every two years would be more equitable and  prevent the heart-stopping (and for some people, budget-busting) increases that come from long delays between revaluations. Since 1983 the county has for a variety of reasons mostly deviated from its every-four-years revaluation goal, although they say they plan to resume it.

The 1990 Observer article found that across the country, many local governments revalue more often than every eight years. The reporters wrote:

“In Phoenix, Maricopa County tax assessor Ira Friedman, said: ‘If you have spiraling increases in values, it makes sense from an equity standpoint to revalue property every year. It’s commonly done nationwide. It’s really a simple system.’ ”

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

How did Charlotte’s big bike-ped trail run out of money?

Not for recreation only: The Little Sugar Creek Greenway beside Kings Drive in Midtown makes a convenient route for shoppers. The Cross-Charlotte Trail is envisioned as both recreation and transportation. Photo: Nancy Pierce

What should we make of the news this month that the proposed Cross-Charlotte Trail, a joint city-county project, is some $77 million short of the city money it needs to be finished?

That’s essentially what the Charlotte City Council was told Jan. 7 – that to complete the 26-mile bike-pedestrian trail across the county would require an estimated $77 million beyond the $38 million in city money previously allocated (and mostly spent).

Did costs balloon along the way? Why was the council seemingly blindsided? And what happens next?

Plenty of finger-pointing has ensued. City Manager Marcus Jones told the Charlotte Observer, “I’m going to own this.”

After talking with a variety of folks about the trial and its funding problem, my conclusions:

No. 1: Not enough people were paying enough attention to the original cost estimates for a trail through the heart of the city, or to how rising construction and land costs everywhere would inevitably drive up costs.

No. 2: City and county governments still work in separate silos. Early city estimates, dating to 2012, relied too heavily on what the county had spent to build greenways, apparently with city officials not realizing the county greenways generally only get built where land acquisition is free or cheap and where topography is not complex.

No. 3: The City Council wasn’t updated regularly enough, especially as land and construction costs began rising after 2012, as the city finally pulled out of the recession.

No. 4: Turnover in city leadership probably did not help.

How a city trail is related to the county’s greenway program

Some background. One essential fact to understand is that Charlotte has no park and recreation department. In 1992, the Charlotte parks department was absorbed into the Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation Department. Whether that was a good move is a topic for another day. The county park department plans, funds, builds and maintains greenways, which typically run beside creeks, in large part because land there tends not to be developed, or else a candidate for the county’s floodplain buyout or creek restoration programs. In other words, getting right-of-way hasn’t required a lot of county greenway money.

It also helps to know that in 2010, in the depths of the economic downturn here, the cash-strapped county slashed its park department budget by almost half. It has not restored staffing to 2010 levels, despite a county population increase from 2010 to 2017 of more than 157,000 people – larger than the entire population of Charleston, or Asheville.
The Toby Creek Greenway near UNC Charlotte is an already-open part of the Cross-Charlotte Trail. Photo: Nancy Pierce

Because the county’s greenway expenditures haven’t been robust, large gaps exist in the county greenway master plan. (See The long, long path for one Charlotte greenway about the Toby Creek Greenway.) In 1999 Mecklenburg County adopted a 10-year-master plan goal of 185 greenway miles. By 2008 only a cumulative total of 30 miles had been built. By 2018 the number had inched up to 47 miles of developed greenways. (For more on the slow rate of greenway building, see “Why does greenway vision remain unfulfilled?”

In 2012 the city – which considers greenways part of the transportation system but which hasn’t really built any – proposed helping the county build some of those unfinished miles of its greenway plan, generally along Little Sugar Creek, to create a 26-mile bike-pedestrian trail from the S.C. border near Pineville to the Cabarrus County line north of UNC Charlotte. It would be a $38 million project, the proposal said, paid through a series of bond issues. To date, three bond issues have funded $38 million.

Why was the budget estimate so far off?

Put together the puzzle pieces and what emerges is a picture of a project with too few people paying attention to its budget.

The city proposed the trail in 2012, says Charlotte Department of Transportation Director Liz Babson. But anyone who was following construction costs in Charlotte and familiar with the county’s greenway methods (with as little capital outlay as possible) should have known a construction estimate dating to 2012 might have a few problems. Further, the parts the city agreed to build are through much more intensely developed areas, and areas where no easy trail routes can be found.

Did city transportation staff know much about county greenways?

Further complicating that 2012 budget estimate from the Charlotte Department of Transportation is that they based it on the county’s per-mile greenway construction costs. Both Babson and former CDOT Director Danny Pleasant, now an assistant city manager, described that as one of the problems. Remember, the county was building on cheap or free land, and not where land or construction costs would be high. As Babson told me this week, “We had never built a trail before.” The city applied county per-mile construction estimates to greenway segments the county “had chosen not to build,” she said. “And now we know why.”

Changing faces among city staff and elected officials

In addition, city government was seeing plenty of turnover in high places. City Manager Curt Walton retired in 2012, as the Cross-Charlotte Trail plans were being hatched. Three more city managers have come since then: Ron Carlee (2013-2016), interim Ron Kimble (half of 2016), and Marcus Jones (December 2016-today). Department heads have changed as well. Today’s CDOT director, Babson, has been in that job only a year.
Little Sugar Creek Greenway at Parkwood
Avenue. Photo: Nancy Pierce

Further, five more mayors have served since 2012. Anthony Foxx left in 2013 to become U.S. Transportation Secretary. Succeeding him were Patsy Kinsey, Patrick Cannon, Dan Clodfelter, Jennifer Roberts and now Mayor Vi Lyles. It probably didn't help that Cannon was indicted,  resigned and pleaded guilty in 2014, creating months of upheaval in city government.

Even the 11-member City Council has seen unusually large turnover. Six of the 11 council members were new to the job in 2017.

Should City Council members have been so surprised?

It’s clear from their reactions that City Council members didn’t understand the scope of the funding shortfall.

You can’t help but wonder whether more robust cooperation across the city-county governments (can you say “tall silos”?) might have left council members more informed about the overall greenway program and its budget-constrained approach.

Hints were dropped here and there, but it’s hard to fault council members for not picking up on them. Several council members recall being told early in 2018 at a council retreat that the $38 million couldn’t fund the whole Cross-Charlotte Trail. But remember, six new council members were still in the drinking-from-a-firehose-of-information stage.

In addition, the 2016 Cross-Charlotte Trail Master Plan refers to the need for more money. “It is anticipated that resources in addition to the bond proceeds will be required to construct and maintain the trail,” it says. And, “We recommend that future bond allocations be considered as the primary funding opportunity to pay for large remaining gaps in costs.”

But come on. Those warnings are in the text on pages 149 and 150.

Babson conceded to me this week, “I don’t think we were in front of council as often as we needed to be.”

What happens next?

City Manger Jones, in an interview with local NPR station WFAE, said, “The commitment is to finish the Cross Charlotte Trail in its original version.” He said he’s looking at options, including possibly using a portion of the city’s tourism tax funding to pay for some of the trail.

Another likely possibility is that as development occurs along the unfinished portions of the trail’s route, such as along the Blue Line Extension light rail, the city would work with developers and encourage them to build some segments or to dedicate land to the trail project, the way they’d get developers to build a sidewalk or pay for a traffic signal.

There could be more bond issues, since the city holds bond referendums every few years for other infrastructure projects such as street widening and intersection expansions. State or federal grant programs might help with some of the costs.

Council member Greg Phipps, a veteran of the council’s transportation and planning committee, predicted Monday the council would continue to support the trail. “The vision of the trail hasn’t changed. We’ve come this far. We have to find a way to complete this thing.”

Students use Torrence Creek Greenway in Huntersville as a transportation route on a Walk To School Day in 2015. Photo: Nancy Pierce

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Time to have that uncomfortable talk. I mean about parking.

A Walmart in east Charlotte offers a gracious plenty of parking. Photo: Google Maps satellite view
It’s a question without easy answers. But that just makes it even more important to confront, and find a guiding strategy. It’s time for Charlotte to talk about parking.

Parking is both blessing and curse for any city built – as Charlotte mostly was – around private automobile use.

There’s a lot to curse. An admittedly incomplete list of problems parking lots cause would include the way they devour valuable land space that could hold housing, stores, workplaces, parks, community gardens, tree canopy, pretty much any use valued by city residents. (See below for a short list of what could go into one parking space.) They send storm water runoff cascading into local surface waters (i.e. creeks), polluting them and causing more frequent flooding onto the floodplains where foolish development was allowed. Remember Hurricane Florence in September? Get used to it, as climate change brings more heavy rainstorms. They add to the urban heat island effect, pushing the rising summer temperatures even higher. And the need to provide parking creates significant headaches for small businesses.

And finally this: With so much parking both “free” and available, we almost always hop into the car instead of asking, could we walk? Bicycle? Take a bus or light rail?

But parking lots can also be a blessing in a city built to make driving the automatic choice for almost all of us. For most residents here, any alternatives to private automobile travel – walking, bicycling, scootering, transit or ride-shares – aren’t available or competitive in terms of time, hassle and cost. And when we drive, we need temporary lodging for our vehicles.

I was reminded of this late last month. Rain was pelting the asphalt as I wheeled into what looked like the last available parking spot at Cotswold shopping center, then sloshed across the asphalt for last-minute Christmas shopping. I was glad to find even that terrible parking place.

But should two weeks in December really determine the size of parking lots year-round? It’s January now, and across

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Charlotte fantasies, past and future

UNC Charlotte design student presents plans imagining a transit-oriented neighborhood, North Park. Photo: Mary Newsom

It was 250 years ago this week, Dec. 3, 1768, that the City of Charlotte was officially born with an act by the royal governor of the colony of North Carolina. (Read that charter here.) Monday, the city celebrated in a ceremony uptown with a sound stage and music so extremely amplified that you couldn’t talk to anyone, with birthday cake and food trucks.

Jim Williams as Thomas Polk
It wasn’t a fancy, planned-for-two-years kind of celebration – no fireworks, parades with visiting dignitaries, planes flying banners overhead. But of course, officialdom in Charlotte for as long as I’ve lived here has been more interested in pushing future growth and prosperity than in examining and learning from the past.

That 1768 charter designated five white men to be “city directors,” and one of them, Thomas Polk, was loitering near the sound stage Monday, waiting for the noon speechifying. Polk, or really, local history enthusiast Jim Williams, was resplendent in a black tricorne hat, buff-colored waistcoat, and knee breeches and frock coat of the color that 200 years later would be known as Carolina Blue. Polk – the real one – was a shrewd fellow of Scots-Irish ancestry who before eventually moving on to Tennessee played a key role in the city’s first – but by no means last – spec development.

Polk and a few others, on their own dime, built a log courthouse where two trading paths intersected, in hopes of giving the young town a competitive edge to be designated the Mecklenburg County seat. Which would, of course, make their own property more valuable.

It worked.

And for a city on the make, what could be a more fitting foundational story?


After the noontime birthday festivities that celebrated the past, I headed off to hear, instead, about an imagined future –

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Do women pay a transportation ‘pink tax’?

This is a quick note, following my previous post, “Cities for woman: Transit and gendered spaces,” which raised the question of whether city planners and designers take women’s experiences and needs sufficiently into account.

A survey from New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management concluded that women in New York pay, on average $26 to $50 a month more for transportation due to concerns about harassment and safety.

According to an article in amNewYork, the survey took place during September and October and asked New Yorkers about travel habits. Read more here and here. Of the women who responded, 75 percent had experienced harassment or theft on public transportation, compared with 47 percent of male respondents.

And 29 percent of the female respondents, compared with 8 percent of men, said they avoided taking public transportation late at night because of “a perceived safety threat.” From that figure, the report authors estimated women’s higher transportation costs.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Cities for women? Transit and gendered spaces

Bus route changes that force longer walks, especially at night, can be particularly discouraging to female transit passengers. Photo: Charlotte Area Transit System bus, in 2010, by James Willamor via Flickr - CC BY-SA 2.0

I recently found myself listening in on a group call with Daphne Spain, author of Gendered Spaces (1992) and How Women Saved the City (2002). Spain, a sociologist at University of Virginia, studies and writes about ways women and men historically have been treated differently in both public and private spaces. And I now have two more books on my To Read list.

Spain talked about public transit, among other topics, and at one point noted India has created women-only trains because of the extreme harassment women there can experience.

As it happened, the conversation came a few days after I saw the viral video, “A Scary Time,” by Lynzy Lab. With more than 1.3 million views as of Nov. 5, the video from Lab, a dance lecturer at Texas State University, mocks some discussion that arose after the Brett Kavanaugh hearings in Congress that men’s fear of being wrongly accused of sexual improprieties dwarfs the fears women live with over sexual assault, harassment and not being believed.

Accompanied by a ukulele, and ending with a plea to vote Nov. 6, Lab sings, in part:

“I can’t walk to my car late at night while on the phone / I can’t open up my windows when I’m home alone / I can’t go to the bar without a chaperone … / I can’t use public transportation after 7 p.m. / … And I can’t ever leave my drink unattended / But it sure is a scary time for boys … / I can’t live in an apartment if it’s on the first floor … / I can’t have another drink even if I want more … / I can’t jog around the city with headphones on my ears. … / And so on.

But back to Spain. She noted that women are more dependent on public transit than men. She also mentioned that if bus route planning took greater notice of women’s concerns that bus service would run later into the night to accommodate night-shift workers at places like hospitals. (This, obviously, applies to male night-shift workers, too. But women are disproportionately more likely to use transit, and more likely to live in poverty, meaning they can’t afford to own a car.)

This resonated loudly. The Charlotte Area Transit System recently redesigned some of its routes, to make them speedier and more convenient to more passengers. It’s adding more cross-town routes. Without a massive infusion of funding – not possible in an era when federal transit funds are shrinking and the transit-hostile N.C. state legislature must OK any new sales taxes for places like Charlotte – this means trade-offs are required. The route changes dropped some stops on neighborhood streets and moved them to thoroughfares. That means some riders must walk farther.

A Charlotte Observer article on the pluses and minuses of the changes has this passage, with echoes of Spain’s remarks:

One rider impacted by CATS’ changes is Alberta Alexander, who works nights at a restaurant. Her bus stop on a residential street near Tuckaseegee Road has been eliminated by the changes. 

“It’s my only transportation,” she said. “If I do not drive, and they’re changing these buses and changing these routes, I have no other option.”

Now, if she gets off work late, she’ll have to walk from Tuckaseegee to her house at night, instead of getting off much closer on State or Sumter streets.

“Before the changes, I had a bus stop in a 2-1/2 block radius,” she said. “I wasn’t afraid to walk home.”

Men as well as women walking alone on a dark, deserted street are vulnerable to muggings, robberies, etc. But women, often less physically able to overpower any attacker, make easier targets. Plus they experience the additional fear of sexual assaults. Consider this, as reported in a Next City article, “Designing Designing Gender Into and Out of Public Space”: “A 2014 Hollaback!/Cornell University study found that 93.4 percent of women surveyed globally had experienced verbal or nonverbal street harassment in the last year, and more than half had been groped …”

This isn’t meant to say the CATS bus route changes were, on balance, a mistake. As CATS chief operations planning officer Larry Kopf told The Observer, while some riders might have a longer walk or lose a stop nearby, the majority will benefit from faster bus trips and more efficient routes.

But it’s important to ensure that the concerns of women – about walking to bus stops along well-lit, not deserted streets, for instance – are treated seriously when changes are proposed.

And this is not just an issue for CATS. The city of Charlotte should pay more attention to, and put more money into, making streets safer for all pedestrians, for the disabled, and for people riding bicycles (and today, scooters). Fewer than half the streets in Mecklenburg County have a sidewalk on even one side.
Charlotte has many streets without sidewalks, like this one in a neighborhood near SouthPark. That can make pedestrians, especially women,  feel unsafe, particularly in the dark. Photo: Mary Newsom
Building a well-used, safe transit system means more than better and more frequent routes. It requires more sidewalks, improved sidewalks, better street-lighting (with energy-efficient LED lights that point downward so as to avoid blinding glare), and requiring development that creates “eyes on the street,” to reduce deserted areas.

Daphne Spain, in the conversation last month, mentioned that she serves on the Albemarle County (Va.) planning commission. In her time on the commission, she noted she hasn’t worked with a single female developer. “The people building our cities,” she said, “are still men.”


Saturday, September 15, 2018

Waiting for the creek to rise

Now demolished, the Midtown Sundries building was in a floodplain and flooded regularly. Photo courtesy Charlotte-Mecklenburg Storm Water Services.
Now and then, during extremely heavy rainstorms, my daughter and I used to hop in the car and drive about a quarter-mile away to see if what we call the Creek House was inundated.
The house was built in the 1990s on a you-can’t-believe-it’s-legal site: within about 6 feet from a small creek.

That creek (one of about 3,000 miles of creeks in Mecklenburg County) has the boring official name of Briar Creek Tributary #1 and is neither large nor impressive. Except during a heavy rain. Then it deepens and widens – muddy and dangerously fast-flowing.

At one point, when the Creek House was being built, it was so close to the creek there was a two-by-four propped between an exterior wall and the far side of the creek.

It was a shocking example of how slack Charlotte and Mecklenburg County environmental regulations were, even though they were in some significant ways stricter than the state’s. I sent a copy of the photo to a fellow I knew in the county water quality program; he used it in a slide show urging Charlotte-Mecklenburg elected officials to require undisturbed vegetative buffers beside creeks. I can’t claim that photo is what led the county commissioners to enact the buffer ordinance. But I hope it helped.

Tonight, in Charlotte, N.C., we’re awaiting what may be 10 inches or more of rain from what’s left of Hurricane (now