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Mecklenburg 2011 revaluation was a failure, must be fixed

Mecklenburg must repair property appraisal, promptly

There’s only one honest appraisal of Mecklenburg County’s 2011 property revaluation: It was severely defective. County commissioners must begin fixing it without delay.

When commissioners approved an independent audit of the revaluation in May, County Manager Harry Jones dismissed the review as “neither necessary nor appropriate.”

“When confronting actual facts, there is no purpose, I believe, that would be served by conducting any audit,” he said.

To his credit, Jones said Tuesday that he was wrong, and that the review was valuable. It produced considerable evidence that shows just how badly the county, led by Tax Assessor Garrett Alexander, botched the job.

Wilson-based Pearson’s Appraisal Service delivered findings of its audit of Mecklenburg’s revaluation on Tuesday. Some lowlights:

• Nearly a third of the 151 neighborhoods Pearson’s randomly reviewed had assessment problems; 15 had major flaws and 34 had minor flaws.

• About three-quarters of the 52 neighborhoods with the largest land-value increases were flawed (20 major, 18 minor).

• County data were flawed on a quarter of 375 randomly selected properties.

This just hints at the scope of the problem. Pearson’s reviewed only about 15 percent of the county’s neighborhoods. There is every reason to think that similar mistakes were made in many of the other 1,100 or so neighborhoods.

Beyond the numbers, Pearson’s spelled out substantive problems in how the county executed the revaluation. Perhaps the biggest: The county didn’t make an adequate effort to go into the field and understand individual properties, especially in older neighborhoods; rather, it relied heavily on statistical modeling by computers to conduct a mass appraisal.

Pearson’s also pointed to a broken appeals process that “was ineffective at addressing taxpayer concerns,” evidenced by an unusually high number of residents taking their informal appeals a step further, to the Board of Equalization and Review. And the fact that this recommendation was needed is unsettling: “Board members should review all case documentation prior to rendering a decision.” An elementary practice, we would think.

The bottom line: Thousands of Mecklenburg property owners are being taxed on flawed values. The county must end that, urgently.

Throwing out the revaluation completely and starting over appears to be insurmountably complicated, and would probably require a change in state law.

Instead, the county must do four things:

• Go into every neighborhood in which Pearson’s identified major flaws, address errors and issue new values.

• Hunt down similar major flaws in the 1,100 neighborhoods that Pearson’s didn’t review, and make those repairs.

Correct the other deficiencies in the process that Pearson’s cited, for future revaluations.

• Immediately begin planning, then implementing, a whole new revaluation, a process that Pearson’s says could take three years or so.

In an interview with the Observer editorial board, Pearson’s project manager, Emmett Curl, cut through all the complications and gave advice the county needs to embrace:

“It’s all about the customer,” Curl said. “If it’s built around knowing you have to satisfy that customer, you’re fine. But if you leave the customer out of the equation, you’re in trouble. The customer is the only reason you exist.”

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