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Mecklenburg likely to delay revaluation

Support appears to be waning for a reassessment of Mecklenburg County property values next year, as county commissioners face a deadline on how to proceed.

Countywide, values have risen by about 20 percent since 2003, though some areas have seen declines and others have seen spikes of as much as 400 percent.

Four members of the newly elected board of commissioners told the Observer this week that if a vote were taken now, they'd delay the revaluation until at least 2010. They are worried, in part, that new values could lead to higher tax bills for some homeowners.

Though that is one vote short of a majority, other board members said this week they are undecided – a shift from the outgoing board's position.

The outgoing board, which is losing four members at the end of this month, had been split 4-4 on whether to keep the revaluation on its current 2009 schedule.

Dumont Clarke, an incumbent commissioner, was one of four Democrats who had voted against a delay. Now, he said, he is “on the fence” but leaning toward a delay.

“I'm conflicted about this,” Clarke said. “I think there are good arguments to be made on either side.”

Last month, he was among commissioners who said resetting values now would fix inequities across the county where some residents are paying less taxes than market value would dictate, while others are paying more.

Clarke said this week he is also concerned about the economy and the possibility of many appeals from property owners about new values.

The outgoing board recently voted to delay discussions on the revaluation until after the new board is sworn in on Dec. 1.

The incoming board is expected to vote one day later on setting a public hearing for a key step in the revaluation process.

The final decision will likely be later in December.

Mecklenburg has been working on its first revaluation since 2003, and was due to start sending out new notices of value to property owners early in 2009.

State law requires counties to revalue properties at least once every eight years. Mecklenburg had planned to reset the values in 2007, but it was delayed until next year so the tax assessor's office could upgrade software and redeploy staff.

In October, Republican commissioners started pushing for another delay because of the worsening economy, including falling housing prices and the Wachovia acquisition. They also worried that resetting values now could lead to higher tax bills for residents.

Karen Bentley, a Republican who led efforts to push back the revaluation until 2010, said a delay would give the market time to stabilize. Fellow Republicans Neil Cooksey, a new member, and incumbent Bill James also said they'd support a delay.

So would Democrat George Dunlap, another new member. He said he is worried about older residents on fixed incomes whose property values could rise dramatically. Dunlap said he wants more time to educate residents about what grants or discounts may be available to help them pay for the taxes so they're not priced out of their homes.

Alice Bennett, an organizer for the nonprofit group Helping Empower Local People, said she also is worried about people “losing their homes simply because they will not be able to afford the taxes.”

Democrat Dan Murrey, a new board member, said he is leaning toward doing a revaluation now, but wants more information, including how much property values have changed since 2003 and how volatile the market is now. “I need to see some data and talk through it with the folks who have done the analysis,” Murrey said. “I want to go in with as much information as I can before I make a decision.”

Democrats Harold Cogdell and chairman Jennifer Roberts also said they are still gathering information and don't know yet how they'll vote. “We've got to be able to meet the needs that the county is responsible for,” said Cogdell, another new commissioner. “But we've also got to take into consideration the individual impact and make sure that the process is fair.”

New board member Vilma Leake, a Democrat, couldn't be reached for comment.

Many commissioners cautioned their position could change based on information they receive in the coming days or weeks from county staff, residents and their board colleagues.

Commissioners won't set a new tax rate until the summer, so it's impossible to predict now how much taxpayers will ultimately owe.

Tax Assessor Garrett Alexander said he is continuing to monitor housing data. “These are very unusual times,” he said. “No one has had to face a revaluation given some of the issues that have happened in the financial markets and in the banking business that we have seen over the last three or four months.”

Garrett said that, as an assessor, he is ethically bound to rely on data and not forecasts in setting values. “I can only give the commissioners and the public the things I can measure,” he said.

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