Claire Williams thought her Mecklenburg County property taxes on the Steele Creek patio home she bought in September 2012 were paid up.
But late last month, she opened a $308 county tax bill that said the property had been undervalued during the mistake-riddled 2011 revaluation and that she owed back taxes for 2011 and several months in 2012 – when she didn’t even own her home.
Williams, 69, just assumed it was a clerical error.
“I did call and told them ‘I could not possibly owe these taxes. ...’ And the poor woman I spoke to said, ‘Oh, no, you do owe it.’ If she told me once, she told me five times, ‘The taxes follow the property,’ not the previous owner.
“I’m a bleeding heart liberal, and I believe in taxes. But that’s the most outrageous thing I’ve ever heard – downright un-American.”
Her property is among 1,170 parcels throughout the county that changed owners since 2011 and were discovered to be undervalued during the ongoing review of the 2011 revaluation, said Mecklenburg Tax Assessor Ken Joyner. To date, field reviews of each of the county’s 356,000 residential and commercial parcels were completed in late November, and all processing should be complete by March 2015, he said.
The vast majority of parcels, about 82 percent, were unchanged.
Back taxes for undervalued properties that changed ownership will bring the county about $256,000, Joyner said. The bills will be delinquent after Jan. 6, at which time interest will start to accrue if they aren’t fully paid, he said.
The county, he said, is bound by state law to send bills to current owners of undervalued properties – not the previous owners. Yet if a property is overvalued, refunds go to whoever wrote the check.
State Sen. Jeff Tarte, who helped write the local law that required the revaluation review after a countywide revolt by property owners, said he plans to try to remedy the problem.
Yet Joyner has spent the last year talking about the issue at community forums and Realtor offices and events “in hopes they will protect their clients from getting blind-sided.”
“We knew it would be confusing to a lot of people,” he said. “But what it boils down to is that the tax is against the property, not against the person. It’s a lien on the property. Believe me, no one in the assessor’s office is wanting to send these bills.
“Our hands are tied by the state statute.”
Calling the issue “totally and unequivocally unfair,” Tarte, a Republican and former Cornelius mayor, said it was overlooked when the law was written.
After fielding calls from upset property owners, he began to look into introducing legislation during upcoming long session in Raleigh to “fix it.”
He said he’s discussed the issue with County Manager Dena Diorio and staffers in the state revenue department. “They tell me that there’s some (state) statutes that may give us the flexibility to stop this practice,” he said. “My expectation is that we will stop billing people who didn’t own the property at the time. And I would also expect that people who already paid it will be refunded with interest.
“I’ll need to get 86 other votes, and I can’t guarantee it will pass. But I don’t think it will be a heavy lift.”
Yet, he said, property owners who still owned an undervalued parcel since 2011 would continue to be billed for the extra taxes. Any remedy would only address parcels that had changed hands, he added.
‘Nothing we can do’
That should offer good news to Williams and property owners like Shelly and Daniel Black and Emily and Justin Reis. The couples don’t know each other, but live in the Wedgewood North community in north Charlotte.
Apparently others in the neighborhood are going through the same predicament, so the neighborhood set up a private Facebook page for residents to share information – and vent.
“There was a lot of: ‘We have to fight this.’ ‘We have to stand up against it.’ ‘If they (the county) made a mistake, why should we be held liable for this?’ ” Emily Reis said. “But the truth of the matter is, there’s nothing we can do about it.”
The Reises, first-time homeowners expecting their first child in May, bought their house in the summer of 2013 from the estate of Justin’s father, who died the previous February. Taxes for 2013 were paid out of the estate, and they got the 2014 property tax bill and paid it, Emily Reis said.
Then around Thanksgiving, they got another bill for back taxes of about $800 for 2011, 2012 and part of 2013.
She said she thought the state didn’t hold previous property owners liable to back taxes because they’d be hard to find.
“They can find them for a refund, but they can’t to send them a bill?” she said. “We’ve been renters our entire life, so we’re still getting accustomed to big house bills. This $800 bill doesn’t help, especially at the holidays.”
The Blacks, who bought their house in late September 2013, were billed for about $900 in back taxes for 2011, 2012 and 2013 after the property’s value was determined to be too low, Shelly Black said.
“We are glad the property value went up,” she said. “And we will gladly pay taxes on the years we owned the house. But for us to be responsible for taxes during years we didn’t own this house is insane.”
‘Got to be kidding’
Claire Williams in Steele Creek would agree.
A longtime Charlottean who in retirement moved to Beaufort, S.C., she returned in 2012 to be near her daughter and son-in-law. She said she bought her patio house at a “fire sale price.” The house had sat unsold after it was built in 2008 – just as the economy and housing market began to sour.
She thought she was caught up paying property taxes, until the new bill showed up.
“I may not be the best example of someone in this situation: I can write a check and be done with it,” Williams said. “But I’m sure for some people this creates a real hardship. And, really, it’s the principle of the thing. If I bought that house yesterday, I’d still be responsible for taxes dating back to Jan. 1, 2011.
“When I tell my family and friends about this, they just look at me and say, ‘No. You’ve got to be kidding.’ ”