Hoping to restore public confidence lost over the 2011 revaluation, Mecklenburg commissioners on Tuesday expanded a review of the appraisal to every neighborhood in the county to identify and fix major inequities.
Commissioners approved spending $180,000 for Pearsons Appraisal Service to tag neighborhoods where properties were overvalued or undervalued. The scope will go far beyond the 15 percent sample the firm used for its 18-week revaluation study that found dozens of flaws and fueled anger and distrust toward county government.
The board stopped short of scrapping the revaluation and asking the state for authority to do it over again. But it did start a process to possibly offer refunds on overvalued properties or send higher tax bills to undervalued homes. Such a move would need legislative approval.
Commissioners directed the county staff to begin immediately reworking neighborhoods that Pearsons already identified with serious inequities in its initial study. They also gave the staff 60 days to come up with a process to address minor issues found in the review.
The staff, working under Pearsons guidance, will start with properties of taxpayers who have pending appeals with the state Property Tax Commission. It will then consider properties with pending 2012 appeals to the county Board Equalization and Review (BER) followed by all other neighborhoods.
Initially, County Manager Harry Jones had recommended that the effort to affix new values to properties be put out for bid.
But Commissioner Dumont Clarke didnt want to wait.
I want this process to get started immediately, and I dont want to go through a bidding process, Clarke said after County Attorney Marvin Bethune concluded one wasnt legally needed.
The actions were a face-saving climax for current commissioners determined to put some revaluation issues to rest before a new board is sworn in next week.
Yet the revaluation battle is far from over.
The new board, with four new members including all three at-large seats will be left with more pitfalls. Those could include placating taxpayers whose properties were undervalued in the first revaluation and would face higher tax bills.
Republican Commissioner Karen Bentley of Huntersville, a strong redo advocate, said she now feels doing the revaluation over would be too complicated and time-consuming to pursue.
I think the expectation of a redo is frankly unrealistic, said Bentley, whose district birthed the revolt over the revaluation that ultimately spread countywide. But I think what we adopted today gets us where we want to be looking forward and going back.
The board directed Bethune to consult with experts about the legality and consequences of making any changes in property values retroactive to Jan. 1, 2011. Without legislative approval, any changes wouldnt go into effect until the 2013 tax bills are mailed.
Bethune will consult with experts in the UNC School of Government, N.C. Department of Revenue, N.C. Assessors Association, the city of Charlotte and all Mecklenburg towns. His report is due in 60 days.
Looking forward, commissioners directed county staff to devise a time frame and process to replace the current Board of Equalization and Review, which had lost public trust. The citizens board hears formal revaluation appeals.
Jones also assigned longtime General Manager Bobbie Shields to oversee the county tax assessors office, left without a supervisor after Tax Assessor Garrett Alexander for months the target of much revaluation discontent resigned his job. Alexander is still working for the county, but Clarke said his new role has not been determined.
Commissioners voted to require a new BER to schedule appeals hearings that are more convenient to appellants and board members.
Whoever is elected the new county commissioners chairman will appoint a subcommittee to review current BER policies and practices, and report to commissioners any recommended changes.
I think weve done all we can as a local board to address the big issues, Bentley said. Were expanding this review to all 1,100 tax neighborhoods and well have a new tax assessor. We are getting a new BER. Theres no doubt in anybodys mind that that needed to happen to regain trust and credibility in the process.
Pearsons was hired last July to study the controversial revaluation. What started as a protest in the Cornelius-Lake Norman area, spread countywide as residents complained their properties were grossly overvalued and in some cases undervalued and that their concerns were ignored.
Pearsons found dozens of neighborhoods in its 15 percent sample with inequity flaws, yet proclaimed the overall revaluation acceptable.
Among 52 neighborhoods with the fast-growing increases, Pearsons found 20 with major inequities and 18 others with minor problems. Among 151 randomly picked neighborhoods, 49 had at least minor flaws 15 of those had major ones. Emmett Curl, a project manager for Pearsons, stressed that many of the properties could have been undervalued.
On Tuesday commissioners toyed briefly with calling for a redo, but it quickly became obvious that the issue didnt have the votes to pass.
The other issue that commanded much of the discussion was replacing the current BER.
Commissioner George Dunlap said itd be unfair to just fire the whole board.
I understand everybody just wants to throw them all out, Dunlap said. But I think the process ought to be fair. Were talking about professionals with a career. Some are appraisers, some are Realtors. I think we have to be fair to these people as much as we have to be fair to all citizens.
The meeting was the last for Chair Harold Cogdell, an at-large commissioner, and at-large commissioners Jennifer Roberts and Jim Pendergraph.
Cogdell had been adamant about addressing some of the recommendations in the Pearsons report. He was pleased they found consensus on several issues.
Sitting for the last time in his dais chair, he spoke briefly about the complexities of a revaluation redo.
Its a complex issue that needs to be studied carefully before the board makes a decision that redo is in the best interest of Mecklenburg County, Cogdell said. We needed to get on top of making the necessary adjustments to eliminate the inequities that exist, which we did today.
A redo is something that requires a lot of consideration, not just budgetary. A lot of legal considerations have to be thought through before this board should request the General Assembly to give them that authority.