The Mecklenburg County assessors’ office has been dogged by complaints that it made significant errors when it revalued property in 2011.
It turns out that many of those critics are right, according to a firm the county hired to evaluate the reappraisal process.
Pearson's Appraisal Service looked at a random list of neighborhoods and found 10 percent had "major" problems with equity. The firm also looked at areas that saw the largest spike in property values and found almost half of those were assessed unfairly.
Age of the neighborhood was a key factor, as Pearson's project manager Emmett Curl explained to the county commission Tuesday afternoon.
"Remember, most of your jurisdiction has been built since 1980 (and) those areas of properties tend not be (in) any question," said Curl. "It’s the old areas that make up the balance of the county."
Think Myers Park where land values have gone way up over the years, but homes and lot sizes vary widely. Some established neighborhoods in Lake Norman and South Charlotte – as well as transitioning neighborhoods like Starmount - are also on the "major problems" list because of a big range in home and lot sizes.
Curl says the county relied too heavily on statistical models rather than sending an appraiser out in person. That worked fine for assessing newer subdivisions where all the homes are identical, but,
"What we found is in the older neighborhoods which cannot and do not get the field visits necessary to get them correct," said Curl. "This is not unusual throughout the entire state because budgets have been tight."
What makes Mecklenburg County stand out is the sheer number of irate homeowners who escalated their property value appeals to the county's Board of Equalization and Review. The initial number of appeals – about 50,000 – was to be expected, said Curl. But the county required those appeals to be made in writing and rejected nearly three-quarters of them.
"Offer an option: Face to face appeals," said Curl. "I cannot overstate the importance of this recommendation. People want to come in, sit down and talk to people."
Had those initial appeals been more thoroughly – and thoughtfully – vetted, Curl says the county could have saved itself a lot of heartache: "I truly believe that if that had been done, I would not be here today."
That's what Kathy Davis says she and her Myers Park neighbors have argued all along.
"It absolutely comes as no surprise whatsoever," said Davis after the meeting. "I think it's a shame that it's taken a year and it's taken $250,000 for an auditor to get to that point."
The report recommends Mecklenburg County go back and reassess values in older neighborhoods like Myers Park. Some property owners may see their values go up, others down.
"What we were told today is the assessor's office did good job," said County Manager Harry Jones, choosing to focus on the report's bright side: Some 10 percent of neighborhoods may have been handled unfairly, but that means the vast majority were done well.
By next week Jones hopes to present county commissioners with a plan for fixing the problem neighborhoods. Mecklenburg County Land Use and Environmental Services Agency director Cary Saul – who oversees the Assessor's office – says he's taken the report's criticism to heart, particularly on handling appeals.
"We need to do a better job in dealing with those," said Saul.
As to whether people can trust the assessor's office going forward, Saul replies: "I believe they can trust it will be corrected."
There's already been talk of doing another countywide revaluation in 2014 – partly to clean up the mistakes of 2011.
In the interim, Mecklenburg County can correct property values, but state law only allows the changes to affect future tax bills. Unless the General Assembly steps in, homeowners who've paid too much these last two years are out of luck.
Pearson's will present its findings at the following Town Hall Meetings:
District 1 - November 14 - Cornelius Town Hall
District 2 - November 19 - First Baptist Church West
District 3 - November 19 - Living Faith Baptist Church - 8600 Hood Rd.
District 4 - November 15 - CMGC Room 280
District 5 - November 13 - Marion Diehl Recreation Center
District 6 - November 15 - Matthews Town Hall
November 20, 2012 Regular Board Meeting: The Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners will receive the final written report from Pearson’s Appraisal Service, as well as recommendations from the County Manager pursuant to Pearson’s findings and recommendations.
Read the presentation Pearson's Appraisal Service gave to Mecklenburg County Commissioners on Tuesday here.