RALEIGH, N.C. -- A bill that would refund thousands of Mecklenburg property owners overbilled by the flawed 2011 revaluation won unanimous approval from an N.C. Senate panel Tuesday.
The bill, introduced by Sen. Jeff Tarte, a Cornelius Republican, appears to have bipartisan support.
“This isn’t about politics at all or partisanship,” said Tarte, the bill’s main sponsor. “It’s about the citizens.”
Tarte didn’t know Tuesday when his bill will go to a full Senate vote. He’s waiting for action on a companion House bill that will be introduced by Rep. Bill Brawley, a Republican from Matthews, in committee on Thursday.
Both bills address problems with the county’s 2011 property revaluation, which triggered a flood of protests and appeals. An independent study ordered by county commissioners last year found widespread errors or discrepancies.
The legislative bills call for a new revaluation within 18 months.
Owners whose properties were overvalued will get refunds with interest dating back to Jan. 1, 2011. Yet it could be three years before they get them, Tarte said.
Mecklenburg residents with properties that were undervalued could see higher tax bills to make up for the difference, though it’s unclear whether those bills will be for multiple years.
Since revaluations are governed by the state’s Machinery Act, Mecklenburg County couldn’t authorize refunds or reset values without first getting permission from state legislators.
Tarte and Brawley have said for months they will seek that permission.
They and other officials hope the legislation will help restore trust lost in county government over the revaluation debacle.
At one point, Finance Committee Chairman Bob Rucho, a Matthews Republican, offered a simple explanation of the proposed process.
“It’s almost like a brand new revaluation to make sure folks are treated fairly,” Rucho said.
Mecklenburg County Commission Chair Pat Cotham said Tuesday she’s grateful that the bill made it through committee without any problems.
“I am happy to hear the revaluation bill is moving quickly,” Cotham said. “This bill, when it becomes law, will restore fairness and help rebuild trust for the people of Mecklenburg County.”
Revaluation problems likely will have a significant impact on the 2013-2014 budget.
The county is expecting to refund between $10 million and $22 million in overpaid taxes for 2011 and 2012, county Finance Director Dena Diorio told Mecklenburg commissioners last week.
Diorio said Mecklenburg’s tax base could shrink by as much as $3.2 billion based on a review by Pearson’s Appraisal Service and other appeals to property values. To date, Pearson’s has identified 58 neighborhoods with major errors – which means property values will be adjusted. Those neighborhoods include 28,177 parcels valued at $16.1 billion.
In the affluent Eastover neighborhood, some of the assessments were nearly 20 percent too high. Lower values across Mecklenburg by that amount would cost the county $24.9 million in the coming year, Diorio said.
That loss, combined with the millions of dollars in refunds, could mean a cut in services – or tax hike – next year, some county officials warned.
County Manager Harry Jones told commissioners that it’d be difficult to maintain services at the current level, and instructed department heads to submit budget reductions for next year.
Jones is expected to present his 2013-2014 budget in May.
Some property owners who questioned their property tax bills two years ago – and started what became an emotional countywide protest – attended the committee hearing. One was Cornelius native Bob Deaton, who Tarte has called a hero for aggrieved Mecklenburg property owners.
He remembers opening a letter from Mecklenburg County in February 2011. It said the tax value of his lakefront property on Belle Isle Drive had jumped 64 percent, to $937,000, resulting in a roughly $4,000 tax hike.
On a laptop, he used government websites to uncover other disparities in the values of Lake Norman properties. He went to Tarte, then mayor of Cornelius.
Tuesday, Deaton watched the unanimous committee vote with pleasure.
“It makes you feel you can question government and if they’re wrong, that will end up coming out,” he says. “It makes the two years of my time worthwhile.”