Mecklenburg commissioners voted Tuesday to hire Pearsons Appraisal Service to expand a review to all 1,100 neighborhoods and help guide the county toward a future property revaluation.
Pearsons, which will be paid between $1.1 million and $1.7 million, found the last, county-managed revaluation in 2011 riddled with mistakes.
If we need to pay the experts, we need to do it to get it right, commissioners board chair Pat Cotham said. The Pearsons people have proven to be highly skilled, and they were accepted in the community and appreciated.
The firm will also help county staff write a new revaluation plan, pick a new Board of Equalization and Review and review and recommend improvements to the Mecklenburg Tax Office.
Commissioners also voted to hire Customer Service Solutions of Charlotte for $23,000 to help improve customer relations during post-revaluation appeals, an effort to restore lost public trust.
Under its agreement, Pearsons will use as many as seven of its appraisers, working with county employees, to identify neighborhoods with major issues beyond those already identified. That 18-week review was based on a sample of 15 percent of neighborhoods.
The company will at least touch all neighborhoods and spend more time in ones where they find major inequities, general manager and acting tax assessor Bobbie Shields told the board.
Next, theyll determine which neighborhoods have minor issues and create a plan to deal with them.
The expanded review is needed after Pearsons found dozens of flaws in its original review. For nearly two years, taxpayers complained that the revaluation left their property values vastly over-inflated and that they got little satisfaction from the countys tax office.
In the wake of mounting controversy, Tax Assessor Garrett Alexander resigned his post, though he still works in the county finance department.
Shields was appointed to fill Alexanders term until July 1. Tuesday, Shields presented Pearsons proposal to the board.
Pearsons and county staff will start reworking properties that have pending 2011 appeals with the state Property Tax Commission. It will then consider properties with pending 2012 appeals to the county Board of Equalization and Review.
The firm said it will provide an in-depth review of state appeals as part of the neighborhood reviews and will recommend accurate property values in the county.
The appeals will include meetings with property owners and field visits whenever necessary, Pearsons said in its proposal.
The firm, based in Wilson, will use the countys Patriot Computer Assisted Mass Appraisal system to review 2011 property information.
New board members
The previous board approved expanding the review in late November, in an effort to save face and blunt months of criticism directed at commissioners and county staff.
For the current boards four new members, sworn in Dec. 3, Tuesday night was their first taste of revaluation.
It wont be their last. After the new values are in, they are certain to feel the heat of owners with overbilled properties demanding a refund back to Jan. 1, 2011.
Theyll also deal with a new set of disgruntled taxpayers whose properties were undervalued and face higher tax bills.
Any refunds would require approval from the state General Assembly, and a debate is expected on whether legislators can constitutionally grant that permission.
Members of Mecklenburgs legislative delegation have said its possible to get the county permission without disrupting revaluation policies in other counties. They are ready to help the county.
But at least one expert has said that any legislation to allow the county to retroactively reset property values or refund taxpayers would violate the state constitution.
You cant have special rules for special counties, Chris McLaughlin, a taxation expert at the UNC School of Government, told the Observer earlier this month.
County Attorney Marvin Bethune is still studying the issue and by Tuesday was undecided on whether the board should ask legislators for assistance.
Commissioner Dumont Clarke said it didnt matter if commissioners requested help, the Mecklenburg delegation is going to do whatever they want.
Theyre probably going to adopt something whether its constitutional or not, and leave us to figure out what the next step in the process is, Clarke said.
The four new members on the board also got a quick lesson on how emotional the revaluation issue can be.
Commissioners bickered over whether Customer Service Solutions ought to be hired because no one from the company showed up at the meeting.
The company has already done work for the county. Its CEO was prepared to come to the meeting Tuesday, but Shields said he told him it wasnt necessary.
Commissioner Trevor Fuller wanted to delay hiring the company until the board had a chance to question its leaders.
If it takes another day, or a week, we need to get this right because we didnt get it right the first time, Fuller said.
County Manager Harry Jones told the board hes used Solutions for other projects and he could have hired the company again without board approval. He said he only put it on the agenda for transparency.
This looks and smells like micromanagement to me, Jones said.
In the end, the board voted 4-3 to hire the company.