Belmont Water Sprinkler

Are water bills in Belmont higher than in other municipalities? That’s a question I’ve been getting a lot lately, so I decided to do some research and find out!

Our friends at the UNC School of Government have a pretty robust water and sewer rate dashboard that lets you compare rates in Belmont with every other municipality in the state. You can even select different comparison groups to compare Belmont to various different collections of cities: cities within the same watershed, cities of the same size, cities within different distances, etc. If you really want to see how we compare to other cities, this is a great tool.

So, I set Belmont as my main city and then set the comparison group to all cities/towns within 25 miles of Belmont. Here is the resulting dashboard:

Belmont Water Rates
Source: UNC SOG Environmental Finance Center

With 5000 gallons of usage, the combined (monthly) water/sewer bill for a Belmont resident is $81.24 (note that this is based on the “In City” rate – the “Out of City” rate is roughly double this). This is above the average rate of $74.92 for municipalities within 25 miles of ours (including Charlotte, Mount Holly, Gastonia, etc.). The darkest shade of green on the Bill Comparison dial represents the range of rates for the middle 50% of municipalities – and you can see that we fall just outside the high end of that range. So, our rates aren’t the highest in the area, but they are higher than more than half of the surrounding towns/cities.

Changes Coming to Sewer Service

Something else to keep an eye on is the pending interlocal agreement between Belmont and the City of Charlotte that would have Belmont pump its wastewater under the Catawba to be treated by Charlotte Water at a new wastewater treatment plant in Charlotte. It will be interesting to see what impact that has on rates, as Belmont will need to buy additional sewage treatment capacity from Charlotte as we continue to grow.

As part of the agreement, Belmont will pay $9.3 million (and up to $9.6 million) to access the new treatment plant in Charlotte in order to avoid paying approximately $14.3 million to upgrade Belmont’s existing plant (the cost of a brand new plant would be considerably higher). Of course, once the plant comes online, the agreement gives Charlotte the ability to set rates for sewer treatment (which presumably would be passed on to Belmont sewer customers).

Right now, Charlotte sewer rates are pretty close to Belmont’s – but it would be valuable to see a little more information provided around rate projections for Belmont residents to allow some comparisons on the impact to household bills both with and without this project. Will we see any significant change in rates as a result of this project (versus what they otherwise would have been)?

A regional partnership like this isn’t necessarily a bad thing (as there some economies of scale to be gained), but we should be considering the impacts on residents (i.e. ratepayers) before engaging in projects like this (especially since this particular agreement doesn’t sunset for 99 years). The city is supposed to be preparing some estimates in advance of a discussion of this at next week’s council meeting, which unfortunately means there likely won’t be much time to review them before there’s a formal vote. It will be interesting to see what they come up with.

Belmont Tax Graph

Property Taxes in Belmont Among the Highest in Gaston County

Outside making zoning and development decisions, setting the property tax rate in Belmont is one of the city council’s most important jobs. And, if you’re like me, you just got your tax bill in the mail and may be experiencing a little sticker shock based on your new valuation that Gaston County completed this year.

How Your Tax is Calculated

If you are not familiar with how the actual tax you pay is calculated, here’s how you get to that number:

  1. Take the value of your property (as determined by the county appraisal) and divide by 100
  2. Multiply that number by the tax rate

Belmont’s tax rate is currently $0.515 per $100 of value. So, if your house was worth $100,000 than your tax is ($100,000/100) x $0.515 = $515.00

You actually pay both your county and city property taxes at the same time. The county’s current rate is $0.84 (which was just lowered from $0.87), but it’s calculated the same way, and you just add it to the city tax to get your total bill.

So, in our example above, the county portion is ($100,000/100) x $0.84 = $840.00. So our hypothetical Belmont homeowner has a total tax bill of $515 (City of Belmont) + $840 (County of Gaston) = $1355.00

There are actually two ways that your taxes can go up. The city can raise the actual tax rate (which they did last year, increasing it from $0.475 to $0.515), or the assessed value of your property can go up (which is likely what happened to most people this year). The revenue-neutral rate, which is the tax rate that Belmont would need to assess this year (after the re-evaluation) to collect the same amount of revenue as last year (before the re-evaluation) is $0.465. So, what has happened is that the tax rate went up last year, and then this year assessed property values went up (because of the county’s re-evaluation) even as the tax rate stayed the same.

How Does Belmont Compare to Other Towns/Cities?

The average tax bill paid by Belmont homeowners is actually the highest in Gaston County, but you wouldn’t necessarily see that if you just look at the city’s tax rate. I pulled together some data on the other municipalities in Gaston County to give you an idea of where Belmont stands relative to the rest of the county. If you just look at tax rates, you actually miss a big part of the picture. Here’s a simple ranking of where Belmont stands just based on tax rates (note that this excludes the county tax rate, which is the same across the entire county):

RankMunicipalityTax Rate
4Mount Holly0.485
7Bessemer City0.45
8Kings Mountain0.43
10High Shoals0.41

Looked at from a pure tax rate perspective, Belmont comes in at number three. However, when we adjust for the median home value in each of these municipalities and apply that to the tax rate, Belmont jumps to number one:

RankMunicipalityTax RateMedian Home ValueAvg City Tax BillAvg Total Tax Bill
2Mount Holly0.485$163,710$794$2169
11Bessemer City0.45$72,870$328$940
12Kings Mountain0.43$71,490$307$908
13High Shoals0.41$53,880$221$674

It’s also worth noting that because the median home value in Belmont is higher than in most other municipalities (except for McAdenville), the average county tax bill for Belmont homeowners is among the highest in the county (about $1424) – but that’s a topic for another day.

What Tax is the Right Tax?

If you look at historical tax rates in Belmont, the $0.475 rate was set all the way back in 2008, and obviously a lot happened between 2008 and 2018 (which is when the new rate was effective). Especially after a re-evaluation where property values change significantly, I think that the council should be willing to review the appropriateness of the tax rate to ensure that we are collecting what we actually need. In my mind, collecting too much tax money is just as bad as not collecting enough. We don’t want to end up with a situation where we don’t have enough funds to maintain facilities, fund capital improvements, etc. but we also don’t want to get into a situation where we’re looking for things to spend money on.

Given our standing relative to the rest of the county, I think it’s worth taking a look at the tax rate next year to see if it’s still appropriate (especially since there is a rather large budgeted surplus this year – though that is being directed to a rainy day fund). But what do you think? Do you feel like your taxes are too high? Are there some things that you’d like to see get more funding? Let me know in the comments!

Belmont Kiosks

Sitting in Tuesday night’s City Council meeting, two things stuck out to me:

Municipal Service Districts

First, the conversation about the Main Street program in general and Municipal Service Districts (MSD) in particular was pretty interesting (for anyone so inclined, the relevant part of the meeting starts at 49:00). What was fascinating to me was that the most vocal supporters of the kiosks were also the most strident opponents of MSDs – which seems like a pretty classic example of trying to have your cake and eat it too.

For a pretty good rundown of what a MSD is, check out this post from the UNC School of Government, but basically it’s a special tax district (the boundaries of which are set by city council) where the taxes raised in that district are dedicated towards some predetermined goal (urban renewal and downtown revitalization are the most common goals). A lot of municipalities use MSDs to pay for things like tourist information kiosks, downtown beautification/enhancement projects, downtown ambassadors, and other initiatives that benefit downtown businesses (here’s an example from Wilmington). So, rather than paying for things like fancy kiosks with the property taxes that everyone in Belmont pays, these projects would be funded by the taxes collected from the businesses that most directly benefit from them. The other benefit is that it provides a more predictable revenue stream for downtown development and, there’s pretty generous leeway on how the advisory board overseeing the district can spend the money. Of course, the trade-off is that the MSD typically assesses a special tax from the property owners in the defined district, so property owners in the MSD would see higher tax bills. On the other hand, you’d probably see a lot of the public opposition to things like the kiosks disappear if the money for them wasn’t coming out of general property tax revenues.

So, really it’s a judgement call. Although, I will admit to being baffled by those who claim that having the kiosks makes us a “modern” city but then reject out of hand the most common way of paying for these “modern” enhancements. It seems like the hostility of most of the council to his idea is preventing them from even asking the business community if this is something they would be interested in. I certainly don’t think it would hurt to ask the question.

Social Media

The second item that I found more than a little concerning is that there was a conversation among several of the council members about keeping things “in the room” or “in the meeting”. There is apparently some consternation about discussing the council’s policy decisions on Facebook and other social media. Now, if some members of the council prefer to hole themselves up in a bunker and never engage with their constituents, that is, of course, their prerogative. I enjoy engaging with the people of Belmont, both online and offline. I think that social media is particularly valuable, because it’s quick, it’s easy, and everyone has a Facebook account. And by interacting with you on Facebook, I think that I learn just as much from you, as you (hopefully) learn from me. I welcome the conversation, the feedback (both positive and negative), and the engagement. Your opinion matters, even if it makes some council members uncomfortable.