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Mecklenburg having problems finding qualified tax assessor

After paying a firm $16,500 to spend months to develop a list of candidates, Mecklenburg County is having a hard time hiring a permanent tax assessor.

Interim County Manager Bobbie Shields, who is also the interim tax assessor, had planned to announce the top candidate from that search at Tuesday’s board meeting. But he learned Monday the candidate didn’t want the job and withdrew his name.

The candidate, from Philadelphia, said the public talk about the assessor’s office “is too toxic” and he had job possibilities “with a better chance for personal success,” Shields told commissioners in an email and again late into Tuesday’s commissioners meeting.

Now the hunt starts over. At best, it will take another three months to find Shields’ replacement.

He has been the interim assessor since early December after former assessor Garrett Alexander resigned in the fallout of the much-maligned 2011 revaluation.

Shields was supposed to hang up his assessor’s hat June 30. But he’ll remain in the position until a permanent assessor is hired and takes office.

The board late Tuesday discussed hiring former Union County Tax Administrator Debbie King as a consultant.

“The idea is to have someone in the office every day, with feet on the ground and eyes on the operation – and a laser focus on all the recommendations,” said commissioner Karen Bentley, who chairs the assessor search committee. “… It would telegraph to applicants that we’re serious about cleaning things up and getting ready for what needs to be done and what’s coming.”

Commissioner Trevor Fuller said he didn’t see the rationale of “double-spending taxpayer money” by paying for two people to run the assessor’s office.

“Unless you can show me Mr. Shields is not doing a good job, or that no one in that office knows how to do the things that are necessary, I don’t see the point of it,” Fuller said. “We need to focus on getting the best permanent assessor we can hire.”

Commissioner Bill James said he felt Shields isn’t doing a good job as assessor because he continues to support “the failed revaluation, and I’ve got a problem with that.

“We’re refunding people a lot of money,” James told the Observer. “That means the revaluation was screwed up.”

James said he wants Shields replaced as assessor. “I don’t believe the county commissioners are getting the straight dope about what’s going on in that office,” he said.

During the meeting, Shields told commissioners that when commonly used quality measures are applied to the revaluation “you cannot say that the 2011 revaluation was flawed.” He acknowledged it was “a bad revaluation” because of poor customer service.

“If we had paid more attention to customer service and walked people through” the appeals process, there would have been a better outcome, Shields said.

The board instructed Bentley’s committee to meet with Shields, Assistant County Manager Dena Diorio and King to define the scope for King’s job and her pay. Commissioners will vote on the committee’s proposal July 2.

Meantime, Mercer’s Group Inc. of Atlanta, the search firm hired to find qualified assessor candidates, is obligated to continue the search. Some commissioners were unhappy with Mercer’s list of candidates. The board instructed county Human Resources Director Chris Peek to contact the firm and define the board’s expectations.

“They haven’t been able to find someone who meets our qualifications,” James said. “We’re not Mayberry. We can’t just decide to hire Otis to be assessor. We’ve got to have someone who is competent to handle a large urban county with a complex set of problems.”

Perlmutt: 704-358-5061
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