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Little new construction, shaky job market to blame

By DANNY BARRETT Jr.

Scant new construction and a shaky local job market have made for lower property values and generally lower sale prices on homes in Vicksburg and Warren County, according to county officials and market trackers.

Real and personal property for homes and businesses fell 1 percent to $3.47 billion, according the 2011-12 tax roll presented to the Board of Supervisors by the Tax Assessor's Office.

"This is the first time I ever recall we have had a decrease in total valuation on our tax rolls," said Richard Holland, Warren County tax assessor for 16 years, citing dips in the value of agricultural land and commercial growth shrinking in scope from the hotel/casino influx of the recent past.

"We did not have any new hotels or motels or apartments or casino expansions," said Holland, who is retiring this year.

He counted strip mall expansion and a new office for Dirt Works as lone examples of new commercial construction.

"We had a very limited amount of industrial expansion this year. It was a very lean year as far as new construction in residential and commercial."

Home sales were off the pace of last year and have stayed on the market longer since the Great Recession, by most accounts.

"We don't have enough turnover of jobs in Vicksburg, in government or industry," said Wayne Thornton, a Real estate agent and certified general appraiser.

He said the median selling price of about $124,500 for 141 homes he said had sold in the city and county so far in 2011, less than a $134,000 median price on 300 sold in 2010.

When unincorporated communities like Eagle Lake and Bovina are added to the mix, median prices for this year and last year jump - but maintain a pattern of falling prices.

By state law, tax assessors in Mississippi are required to deliver the tax rolls for real and personal property to the board of supervisors on the first Monday in July. Totals include values on homes, businesses and agricultural land. Personal property refers to nonstructural items not built onto land, such as inventories kept by a business.

Economists have marked the nation's official recession from December 2007 to June 2009. However, Thornton said housing market figures "started to feel it" in 2009.

Such issues as credit scores and lingering worries about job security still plague potential homebuyers, said real estate broker Vanessa Leech.

"You have people who can't or are afraid to buy, can't get loans due to credit scores, so they prefer to rent," Leech said, adding the current stock of homes for sale has averaged 262 days on the market, approaching the 297-day average tracked by the industry in 2010.

"They're not sure how secure their job is and don't want to commit to a mortgage."

Leech predicted an increase in foreclosures locally, alongside more interest in federal homebuyer loans that enable couples earning less than $74,000 annually to purchase homes. One home was foreclosed for every 3,067 properties in Warren County by the end of 2010, which ranked 23rd of 55 Mississippi counties with data available in a year-end survey by Irvine, Calif.-based RealtyTrac Inc.

"In those, the seller often picks up the closing costs to help sell it faster," Leech said.

Values computed by the assessor are subject to change during the year as exemptions and abatements alter the rolls. Land values the past two years showed increases of 1.9 percent and 5.9 percent, respectively, due to four new hotels, a new grocery store and completion of the city's fifth casino. Values had risen an average of 3.5 percent in five of the previous six years, with growth slowing to just half a percent in 2008-09.

Of about 12,000 homesteads in Warren County, 11,230 have homestead exemption applications ready to take effect for this year, down from 11,336 at this time last year. Annual reappraisals to a quarter of the county's 26,050 parcels took place in a swath of central Vicksburg from downtown to neighborhoods between Halls Ferry Road and Indiana Avenue.

In June, 416 postcards were mailed to property owners whose parcels increased by $10,000 in true value since last year, down from about 700 last year.

Supervisors equalized the rolls for consistency between assessments and value and the public has 30 days to view their property status and file written challenges if they object. An "objection hearing" is expected to be set for Aug. 1.

Valuations set by Holland's office are used to collect revenue for the county, the City of Vicksburg and the Vicksburg Warren School District. All three depend heavily on property tax revenue, especially school and county operations, which do not share in sales tax collections as the City of Vicksburg does.

In a year when all five supervisors and five of 14 other county-level posts are opposed for re-election, it's still the lack of growth that should prevent the county from raising property taxes for fiscal 2012, Board President Richard George said.

"I don't expect that we will," George said, adding fuel prices haven't risen as high as once feared, creating "a little bit of a break."

"Obviously, when you don't have any growth, it looks like another lean year," George said.