CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Homeowners whose 2011 property values were flawed won a potential victory Monday, with Mecklenburg County Manager Harry Jones saying he wants all neighborhoods with major assessment problems identified and fixed.
Jones will ask county commissioners Tuesday night to extend Pearson’s Appraisal Service’s contract and identify neighborhoods countywide with serious inequities. The firm’s final report, to be released Tuesday, used a far smaller sample to study the controversial 2011 property revaluation.
Properties dramatically overvalued – and undervalued – would then be “reworked” by a company hired through the bidding process, Jones recommends.
The first step would take 90 days and cost $180,000; the second step would take a year and cost $1.5 million to $2.5 million, he said.
The recommendations are among several Jones issued to the board that highlight fixing major problems, including customer service improvements.
The board Tuesday will also take up Pearson’s final findings and recommendations, which focus primarily on the same quality control issues.
Jones said in a brief interview Monday that he is not calling for redoing the 2011 revaluation. In recent days, a growing number of county and state officials have begun pushing for a redo after Wilson-based Pearson’s sampling found dozens of neighborhoods with at least minor problems
A complete redo would require permission from the North Carolina legislature. Some legislators such as Sen.-elect Jeff Tarte of Cornelius and Rep. Bill Brawley of Matthews, both Republicans, have said they stand ready to get Mecklenburg that authority.
“This would not be a redo,” Jones said Monday. “We are basically taking those neighborhoods that Pearson’s identifies, and putting boots on the ground and looking at the issues of inequity and adjustments.”
He didn’t know when those reappraised properties would take effect. “A lot of details still have to be reworked,” he said.
Jones said Pearson’s would have the opportunity to bid for the job.
Recommendations for board
The two recommendations to fix the major problems were among five Jones labeled as “immediate.” The others include:
• Directing Tax Assessor Garrett Alexander to address the minor issues found by Pearson’s study.
• Instructing Jones and Alexander to develop a detailed work plan for the next revaluation that would include updating property record cards; a strategy to assess values in complex areas, particularly in pre-1980 heterogenous neighborhoods; and better management of areas with a high volume of appeals. They would also include improving the informal appeal process with face-to-face meetings with property owners and using one appraiser to handle all appeals in a neighborhood.
• Directing the citizen Board of Equalization and Review (BER) to schedule hearings more convenient to the property owners and board members.
Jones said that county staff believes all of Pearson’s recommendations can be implemented under existing state laws. He said he wants to develop customer service enhancements by using an outside contractor to assess Alexander’s office.
Public trust at ‘low point’
Outgoing Commissioner Jim Pendergraph, a Republican, said Monday that he and the board’s other Republicans will likely call for a redo at Tuesday’s meeting.
Pendergraph said he mostly agreed with Jones’ recommendations – except that it doesn’t call for the redo.
“The Pearson’s people have given us every bit of evidence we need of why there needs to be one,” he said. “Not everyone’s property values were messed up. But if mine was, that’d be the most important thing in my life right now.”
Commissioner Bill James, a Republican, said in a memo to Jones on Monday that the public has lost faith in county staff that conducted the 2011 revaluation and subsequent appeals.
He said current staff, including Jones and Alexander, and current BER members shouldn’t be allowed to continue to work on the revaluation problems.
“Public confidence in the county as at such a low point that many will be suspicious if existing county staff controls the process or supervises it,” James wrote. “If the manager and the assessor and the head of the BER spent a year telling the public that everything was fine … how can the commission now allow yourself or the assessor or the existing BER to work to solve something that each denied existed?”
Pendergraph agreed with James.
“If I had a surgeon and he was going to take off my right leg, but he took off my left one, I’m not sure I’d give him another shot at it,” he said.
Jones: ‘I’ve learned a lot’
Jones acknowledges that he was against the Pearson’s study 18 weeks ago, but now admits he was wrong to recommend against it.
“I felt the process was in place to catch mistakes through appeals,” he said. “But the Pearson’s people have done a good job and I’ve learned a lot from their review. There are some things I learned about relationships that would not have been captured in the appeals process.”
He also said he didn’t know that it had been 17 years since the county staff drove from lot to lot to take pictures and record what was on them.
Yet a redo, he said, would take two to three years, and “there might be cost issues.”
He hoped the board would decide that it needs to fix the major problems first, and work concurrently on other recommendations so they are in place for future revaluations.
Jones would not assess Alexander’s job, or the future of the current BER, saying as he has often said, “the buck stops with me.”
“I’m a county manager and I’m ultimately accountable,” he said.
“I serve at the pleasure of the county commissioners … If tomorrow the (commissioners) decided they want to go in another direction, I am perfectly all right with that.”