Pressure grows for reval redo

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by DAVID PERLMUTT / The Charlotte Observer

WCNC.com

Posted on November 17, 2012 at 12:14 AM

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Pressure mounted Friday for Mecklenburg County to fix its flawed 2011 property revaluation as more commissioners and state lawmakers called for the county to do it over.

The final report from an 18-week, $254,400 review of the much-criticized revaluation was released Friday by Pearson’s Appraisal Service, days before commissioners will decide Tuesday whether to take action on a host of recommendations.

They also could decide to scrap the 2011 values and conduct a new countywide appraisal.

N.C. Sen.-elect Jeff Tarte of Cornelius said last week that state legislators from Mecklenburg are prepared to push a local bill that would give the county authority to reappraise properties.

Highlights of Pearson’s findings and recommendations were unveiled last week by project manager Emmett Curl during a meeting with commissioners and four of six meetings with properties in each of the commission districts.

They found dozens of neighborhoods in their 15 percent sample where appraisals were flawed.

Among the 52 neighborhoods with the fastest-rising values, Pearson’s found that 20 had major problems and 18 others had minor ones.

The company also reviewed 151 randomly picked neighborhoods and found that 49 had at least minor problems. Fifteen of them had major ones. Curl stressed that many of the neighborhoods could have been undervalued, as well as overvalued.

The final report added more details to findings, with examples of where inequities took place.

It also goes deeper into recommendations. They include: the tax assessor’s office providing greater access for taxpayers to speak to appraisers by phone or in person; standardizing correspondence; making customer service a top priority; applying economic adjustments uniformly; and assigning the most difficult neighborhoods to the most experienced appraisers.

Despite the dozens of problems found in its sampling, Pearson’s concluded that, overall, the 2011 revaluation was “acceptable.”

‘Lack of confidence’

That confused some commissioners and upset many property owners.

Wherever Curl went last week, he heard from critics. He joked at a meeting in Cornelius – where the revaluation protest began – that he’d brought a bodyguard.

After one meeting, Emily Zuyus, a vocal revaluation critic who lives in Myers Park, said the volume of mistakes shows the reappraisal was flawed.

“When you find so many neighborhoods with major or minor problems – and these are just a small sample of the whole county – that’s terrible,” Zuyus said.

“Overall, according to the data from Pearson’s, the revaluation was not done well.”

Bill Sykes of Cornelius agreed that the revaluation was completely flawed. He said the county needs to bring in outside appraisers to revalue “every property identified and maybe across the board for the year 2011.”

Friday, Republican commissioners Jim Pendergraph and Bill James said they hadn’t read the final report, but had seen enough to conclude the 2011 revaluation needs to be done over.

“This level of error rate indicates there is a flaw in how the thing was conducted,” James said. “Having someone come in to do it over from scratch makes a lot of sense. Ultimately there’s a lack of confidence in the process and numbers.”

Pendergraph, who is leaving the board this month, said many residents have lost faith in county government because of the problems found in the revaluation, including a lack of clear communications from Tax Assessor Garrett Alexander’s office.

“A lot of people don’t trust government to start with and once you lose trust it’s hard to get it back,” he said. “If we redo it again, I don’t know if it’s going to be any better or worse for the county, or any better or worse for some citizens.

“But the only way to restore trust is to have a redo.”

If the board takes that route, James and Pendergraph said an outside firm ought to be hired to do it.

“How could anyone trust the same people who messed it up to fix it?” James asked.

State permission needed

A redo would require permission from state legislators.

Last week, Tarte told Cornelius/Lake Norman property owners that he and other lawmakers in the Mecklenburg delegation would begin work in January on legislation that would give the county authority to reset 2011 values countywide.

“With so many errors found by the Pearson’s study, the only way to ensure fairness and completeness with all residents is do the whole thing over,” Tarte, Cornelius’ outgoing mayor, told the Observer. “When that’s established for 2011, then your tax value will be known and if you’ve overpaid, you’re entitled to a refund for each tax year.”

In August, House Speaker Thom Tillis of Cornelius asked Rep. Bill Brawley of Matthews and Tarte – all Republicans – to monitor the Pearson’s review.

“I’ve been aware for some time – and have communicated my concerns to Mecklenburg County staff and elected officials – that the county should take steps to correct the many errors within the revaluation,” Brawley said. “I stand ready to run any local bills they need to allow them to fix this problem.”

Tillis included Brawley on a committee he formed to look at revaluation concerns across the state.

Mecklenburg ‘way out of whack’

“Just on the surface, Mecklenburg was the only county across the state that was just way out of whack when it came to revaluation,” Brawley said. “There was a small county in the eastern part of the state that had as many professionals to revalue 57,000 properties as we had in all of Mecklenburg.”

Other counties did drive-by reviews of properties, where appraisers looked at every property “from the seat of their car and look at (real estate) cards to make sure things fit.”

Mecklenburg hasn’t done that in 17 years, according to Pearson’s Curl.

The Tillis committee, Brawley said, concluded “this is a Mecklenburg problem. They said, ‘You go ahead and deal with it. When you need us to do something, let us know.’”

State Sen. Malcolm Graham of Charlotte, a Democrat, said he wouldn’t “be a roadblock in the process. This needs to be done fairly.”

Rep. Tricia Cotham, daughter of incoming Mecklenburg commissioner Pat Cotham, both Democrats, said state lawmakers need to be respectful of county officials.

“I realize there are a lot of problems (with the revaluation) and I’m sensitive to those complaints,” she said. “But I do think we can’t overstep our bounds and we must respect other governing bodies.”

‘Got to work both ways’

County Manager Harry Jones has warned that a redo might find as many properties that had been valued too low as too high.

Consequently, the values of those properties would have to be raised.

James said they shouldn’t be – that the county would risk angering a whole new set of taxpayers.

But Pendergraph said the properties deemed too low would have to be raised, just like the properties too high would have to be lowered.

“It’s got to work both ways,” he said. “If you’re going to refund people, you’ve got to send bills to people who were undercharged – if you’re going to be fair.”

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