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Error-plagued reval on way to being fixed

It will still take at least a few years to rectify the flawed Mecklenburg County 2011 property revaluation. But Gov. Pat McCrory’s signing last week of a local bill mandating a redo of the appraisal and refunds to overbilled taxpayers at least puts the end of this debacle in sight.

This should be a humbling experience for Mecklenburg County officials. Their poor management and lack of diligence in updating the county’s property database – it hadn’t been updated in an astounding 17 years – set the stage for the error-plagued revaluation. An independent consultant has said as much as 40 percent of the data could be wrong.

Former County Manager Harry Jones compounded the problem with his initial cavalier response to taxpayer complaints. He pooh-poohed calls for an independent audit, saying it was “neither necessary nor appropriate” and would serve no purpose.

County commissioners called for the audit anyway, and it unearthed the breadth of the defective evaluation.

Jones later admitted being wrong about the need for an audit. But the revaluation mess became an albatross he couldn’t shake. It was likely a key factor in his firing in May.

Yet, some county officials still won’t acknowledge the depth and seriousness of the county’s lapse. Interim County Manager Bobbie Shields, who is also the interim tax assessor, has rejected the label “flawed” to describe the 2011 revaluation, preferring to call it instead “a bad revaluation” because of poor customer service. He’s said there would have been a better outcome if “we had paid more attention to customer service.”

There’s no doubt the county failed at customer service. But the bigger failure was maintaining a severely out-of-date property database. Appraisers weren’t even actually looking at each parcel of property to help assess its value. If not for the outcry from citizens, which spawned an audit, that might still be the case.

To comply with the new law, Mecklenburg must conduct an appraisal within 18 months. Shields says he’ll recommend hiring an appraisal company rather than have the county do it. The county would have to hire 59 appraisers, he said.

The law rightly mandates refunds with interest for those property owners who were overbilled. It also rightly requires new tax bills be sent to those whose properties were undervalued but no penalties.

Unfortunately, it might be 2017 or even 2019 before many taxpayers get a resolution. Officials say it will take that long to get the database corrected and new values set. But Shields said the county won’t wait until all parcels have been reviewed before sending out refunds.

That’s good. Mecklenburg residents should not have to wait a minute longer than necessary to get money owed to them because of the county’s failings.

This will cost the county. Officials have said refunds will likely come from the county’s fund balance (savings account) and that the county tax base will shrink by $1.9 billion as adjustments are made to thousands of overvalued properties.

The Mecklenburg legislative delegation, with Republican state Sen. Jeff Tarte of Cornelius taking the lead, deserves a nod for the rare bipartisan effort in getting this bill done. Now county leaders must go the last mile, ensuring not only that taxpayers get their due in a timely fashion, but that processes are in place to prevent this from ever happening again.

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