Kevin Siers’ editorial cartoon Tuesday compares Mecklenburg County to Dr. Seuss’ Grinch. The Grinch, however, joyfully returned what he had taken once he realized what he did was wrong. Mecklenburg is still deciding whether its heart is two sizes too small.
When Mecklenburg commissioners meet Tuesday to discuss the county’s botched 2011 revaluation, they should vow to do what it takes to give refunds to property owners who were significantly overcharged, and order that a new revaluation be conducted as quickly as possible. Anything less furthers the county’s disrespect of the taxpayer.
It’s a question of fundamental fairness. An independent audit of the county’s revaluation by Pearson’s Appraisal Service found “major” assessment flaws in about 10 percent of the neighborhoods sampled. The county doesn’t dispute the findings, and Pearson’s expects a similar percentage to be flawed countywide. So the county is acknowledging that tens of thousands of property owners were likely taxed on severely flawed values. Rectifying those charges is the only evenhanded option.
Importantly, however, those clamoring for refunds should be careful what they wish for. Pearson’s found that properties were both over- and undervalued. Cary Saul, who oversees the tax assessor’s office, says the county expects that to be a wash; that is, the properties valued artificially high would be offset by those valued artificially low. The total tax base would remain close to the same.
Just as those who were overcharged deserve refunds, those who were undercharged should be retroactively billed on their accurate values. To do otherwise would violate fairness in the other direction, not to mention pour a carton of red ink all over the county’s budget.
This would not be the politically popular solution. Some commissioners and taxpayers are far more adamant about fixing one half of the ledger than the other. But doing so is philosophically inconsistent and fiscally unsound.
How to do all this will no doubt be complex. It would, apparently, be the first time such a thing has been tried in North Carolina. Who would be assigned new values? Who would determine those values? How should the county refund or retroactively charge residents who have moved away?
Retroactive changes to values also appear to require a change in state law, something the legislature could do promptly when it reconvenes Jan. 30.
At the same time it is identifying and repairing flawed assessments countywide, the county should quickly begin work on a whole new revaluation. But even an accelerated timetable would leave the flawed values on the books for at least two more years, so a new revaluation alone is insufficient.
This episode has severely damaged county government’s credibility. That will take time to restore. Halfway measures that fail to fully own up to the mistakes would only further undercut the people’s trust.
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