It could be months before Mecklenburg County taxpayers overbilled by the 2011 revaluation will know if they should expect a refund.
In concept, many Mecklenburg commissioners agree that any overtaxed property owner deserves a refund. But actually doing that is not so easy.
In late November, the board directed County Attorney Marvin Bethune to consult with experts about the legality and consequences of making changes to property values and refunding overbilled property owners retroactive to Jan. 1, 2011.
Bethune released his findings to commissioners Tuesday night in closed session.
His report is part of a multistep plan to clean up the revaluation mess after a county-hired consultant, Pearsons Appraisal Service, found dozens of major and minor mistakes. Their original survey covered only 15 percent of Mecklenburg neighborhoods.
Board members say Bethune gave the board several options as they consider asking state lawmakers for authority to make changes and refund money on overvalued properties, or raise tax bills on undervalued properties.
Commissioners reached Wednesday wouldnt discuss details of Bethunes report.
But in an email to state GOP lawmakers, commissioner Bill James, a Republican, said much of Tuesdays discussion involved various legal risks associated with different strategies.
James wrote that board Democrats seem opposed to providing refunds. He said Democrats are concerned that refunds would force the county to cut social programs and adversely affect the county budget.
Were not talking about a few refunds, were talking about a tsunami of refunds to be issued, James told the Observer. The Democrats are saying well have to cut programs or raise taxes to cover everything. Theyre focused on the fact that being fair to taxpayers is of lesser importance than protecting the programs that are so dear to them.
On Wednesday, James said hell make a motion supported by board Chairwoman Pat Cotham that the board agrees, in concept to refund all overbilled property owners.
The motion will include authorizing Bethune to work with legislators to draft a bill that accomplishes that goal.
A question of fairness
Cotham said she favors refunds, but also understands the complexities of crafting legislation to authorize refunds and reset values.
Commissioner Trevor Fuller, a Democrat, said hes not opposed in concept to refunds. But there are consequences to doing that, said Fuller, a Charlotte lawyer.
For instance, if the county refunds taxpayers for overvalued property, its required by state law to ask for more money from people whose property values went up. That would be two years worth of taxes were going to be asking those people for.
So, yes, in theory, its absolutely fair to tax people on a legitimate value. But youve got to be fair both ways.
It would take legislation to waive those taxes, Fuller said.
There are other questions of fairness: Should only property owners who appealed their values get refunds? Or should all over-billed taxpayers get relief?
Theres a certain amount of unfairness to that, Fuller said. If I follow the rules and you dont, but youre going to get the same thing I got. Wheres the fairness in that? I want to refund. I agree with the principle. But how do we make it fair for everybody?
James said it would be profoundly unfair not to give a refund to everyone who deserves one. Even if people didnt appeal, their values are still messed up, and they still overpaid.
In his memo to state lawmakers, he urged them to require Mecklenburg to implement a refund.
Legislation being crafted
James said he urged board Republicans and Democrats to work together with state lawmakers to craft legislation. If Democrats are unwilling, he said he and Republican commissioners Karen Bentley of Huntersville and Matthew Ridenhour of Charlotte would pursue the legislation alone.
Meanwhile, legislators from Mecklenburg arent waiting. They are determined to get overbilled property owners a refund, said state Sen. Jeff Tarte of Cornelius.
As Cornelius mayor, Tarte helped lead a taxpayer protest that began in his town and spread throughout the county. Thousands of taxpayers complained the reappraisal had inflated values.
We will make sure we do something that is obviously legal and constitutional, and does right by our citizens, Tarte said. If we get to the point where we start legalizing injustices to our citizens, then were all living in the wrong place.
Tarte said he didnt know when the legislation he and Rep. Bill Brawley, a Republican from Matthews, are crafting would be ready.
We are keeping people apprised, he said. When we get something ready to introduce, we will make sure the County Commission knows. This is not an attempt to overstep our bounds and step on the countys role.
He said county commissioners did right by hiring Pearsons to identify all neighborhoods with major inequities.
Right now, they are finding the big, big outliers, which is appropriate, Tarte said. Ultimately, their responsibility is to ensure that every property, residential or commercial, is treated equitably and fairly.
We hope to empower the council commission with that authority.