The firm hired to review Mecklenburg’s 2011 property revaluation found significant problems in many of the county’s neighborhoods with fast-rising land values, according to a preliminary report released Tuesday.
Still, overall, Wilson-based Pearson’s Appraisal Service concluded that the much-criticized revaluation complied with North Carolina law, and its valuations were “acceptable.” For instance, Pearson’s said that subdivisions of similarly built homes – particularly newer ones, were typically acceptable.
And nearly 68 percent of the neighborhoods reviewed for “equity” in values were deemed acceptable.
But of the 52 neighborhoods that saw the greatest land-value increases, Pearson’s found 20 with major issues and 18 more with minor ones, Emmett Curl, the study’s project manager, told Mecklenburg commissioners at a meeting Tuesday.
It was the first time commissioners had a chance to see findings in the $254,400 review that began in late July. Pearson’s was hired after the board was bombarded with complaints ultimately from throughout the county that the revaluation overly inflated properties and didn’t follow North Carolina law.
Tuesday’s presentation included no details on the problems found at individual properties or in neighborhoods. Those will be included in a more comprehensive final report due at the board’s meeting next Tuesday.
Commissioner Karen Bentley of Cornelius, who represents District 1 where the revaluation protest began, didn’t need the final report. She said the findings released Tuesday substantiate her constituents’ complaints, primarily from Lake Norman and in and around Cornelius.
“We see from this study that our suspicions were indeed true,” Bentley said. “This review backs that up in hard data. We need to fix the properties that were inappropriately valued – either up or down – and we need for them to reappraised and refund that money retroactively.”
That would take permission from North Carolina legislators. County officials have said that any new values may not become effective until 2013 at the earliest.
In addition to the neighborhoods with the fastest-rising values, Pearson’s randomly picked 151 neighborhoods to review. Of those, the agency found that 49 had at least minor issues – 15 of them with major ones. Curl emphasized that the properties could have been undervalued, as well as overvalued, compared to other properties in the neighborhood.
The problems centered mostly in older, “heterogenous” neighborhoods.
In its presentation Tuesday, Pearson’s agreed that the county needs to fix values in neighborhoods where major problems were found.
It’s unclear when the board might take action on recommendations, or if it will leave them to the new board that will be sworn in Dec. 3.
Commissioners Chairman Harold Cogdell said he wants the current board to deal with at least some of the recommendations. But at Tuesday’s meeting other commissioners seemed to imply there may not be enough time to take action, saying that the new board would likely be grappling with revaluation issues for months after it takes office.
The board could add a Nov. 27 meeting to deal with the recommendations.
Cogdell, who is leaving the board this month along with commissioners Jennifer Roberts and Jim Pendergraph, said he found the findings “troubling and concerning” and “need to be corrected.”
“It’s incumbent upon this board, or the next board, to take proper and appropriate remedial measures to ensure that the inequities are addressed and problems that are identified don’t occur in the future,” Cogdell said.
After the meeting, Myers Park resident Emily Zuyus said the findings show the entire 2011 revaluation was flawed, and it should be redone.
“Overall, according to the review, it was not done well,” Zuyus said.
Appeals process criticized
The Pearson’s report also reviewed how well the county’s tax office, headed by Tax Assessor Garrett Alexander, handled challenges to the 2011 revaluation. The county received about 42,000 informal appeals to the revaluation, about 11 percent of the total properties in Mecklenburg.
Many residents complained that the appeals process was troublesome, and Pearson’s review found that the informal process was “ineffective” in addressing taxpayer concerns. In the future, Pearson’s recommended the county offer, among other things, a “more thorough” review of any appraisals submitted by property owners and opportunities for taxpayers to do “face-to-face” appeals.
“I cannot overstate the importance of this recommendation,” Curl said.
The company also called for a quicker resolution to appeals, with any informal challenges heard within six months.
Pearson’s recommended changes in how formal appeals should be considered before the citizen-run Board of Equalization and Review. For example, it said any properties scheduled for a hearing before the appeals board should be visited first by an appraiser. In addition, it said the county should offer recommended values to homes before the date of the hearing.
Cogdell: Office staff lacking
Cogdell said he’s concerned about how the tax assessor’s office relayed information to property owners and that the office wasn’t staffed sufficiently to “handle the revaluation in a manner that could have avoided the inequities that have been identified.”
Commissioner Bill James was upset with the findings, saying many property owners are getting treated unfairly because they are being overtaxed.
“We have 10 percent of properties that have mistakes,” James said. “What about the neighborhoods that aren’t in the sample. What are we going to do about those?
“ … That’s an unmitigated disaster. The Titanic was in a better position that what we’re in.”
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