Orange County residents show up in numbers to fight tax increase

Bryan Berger never imagined the tax revolt that began in his Carrboro living room would draw an overflow crowd to a 350-person meeting hall three weeks later.

Organized through word-of-mouth and $1,700 worth of yard signs, fliers, newspaper ads and robocalls, the “Orange Tax Revolt” ballooned so big in the Big Barn on Monday night that leaders are looking for another venue for the meeting March 16.

“It just made me feel so good all over,” said Berger, who was just one of those donating money to the cause. “To me, it’s the best 200 bucks I ever spent.”

Berger and others estimated the crowd at 1,200 people, and the Orange County fire marshal had to bar some from entering the conference center because of safety regulations.

Orange’s growing anti-tax movement is built on frustration over the countywide revaluation that raised the average home’s tax assessment 23 percent, to $290,000.

“People believe that they can give a little and see a return,” said Kathy Hartkopf, who helped organize the meeting as a North Carolina lobbyist with the nationwide anti-tax group Freedom Works. “It’s about people wanting to have a voice. It’s about people wanting to be able to make a difference.”

Berger and others encouraged those attending to appeal assessments, lobby for lower taxes, and scrutinize county budgets.

Leaders in the county and towns aim to lower tax rates so taxes on an average home won’t go up. Berger is skeptical.

“They have never been revenue-neutral once, even though they say they’re going to be,” Berger said.

The county did set a revenue-neutral rate — 20 years ago. Even if the county and towns decide to raise the same amount of revenue, some tax bills would still increase.

The revaluation’s goal was to rebalance values to bring them more in line with the market, meaning some went up faster than others over the past four years.

Homes in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school district, for example, went up by 29 percent, while those in rural Orange County went up less than 20 percent.

“If housing values went up at a higher rate in Chapel Hill than they went up in some other part of the county, then the cost of running the county is going to get shifted onto Chapel Hill,” Mayor Kevin Foy said. “Everybody’s nervous, and with good reason.”

Both Foy and Carrboro Mayor Mark Chilton said the towns were unlikely to trim their budgets below the revenue-neutral rate because that would compromise services and infrastructure.

In particular, Foy resisted some citizens’ call to eliminate fare-free bus rides, saying the town would lose federal funding and it would create more traffic.

Valerie Foushee, chairwoman of the Orange County Board of Commissioners, said it was too early to say whether the county could consider spending less money next year than it is spending this year.

“We have to see what the costs of providing certain services are,” she said. “All of us realize that we can’t do business as usual.”