Local group cries foul over property revaluation decisions

by Mike Parks

A group of concerned taxpayers in Matthews, Mint Hill and south Charlotte say local leaders are picking favorites in the revaluation process, and in turn exploiting and neglecting southern Mecklenburg homeowners.

The South Mecklenburg Alliance of Responsible Taxpayers, or SMART, says the county unfairly agreed to a special review of north Mecklenburg revaluation appeals, and SMART wants the same treatment in the southern towns and around Ballantyne. But the county’s tax assessor’s office says homeowners should wait until their appeal is heard and present their case then, otherwise they’ll just slow an already lengthy process.

The taxpayers group planned to discuss the issue at a special meeting Thursday, March 8.

The revaluation process sets a value on a home’s worth and establishes how much each homeowner must pay in taxes for that home. Because of the recession and housing market crash, home values across the nation have dropped dramatically, and local homeowners expected to see that reflected in their appraisal: a lower home value means lower property taxes. The problem, according to Chuck Hicks, an employee with the county’s tax assessor’s office, is Mecklenburg hasn’t done a revaluation since 2003. So homeowners have to remember that, despite the market drop, the values of their homes could still have increased since that last assessment, he said.

“For a property owner … who got a new value for higher … (I understand why) they’re mystified,” Hicks said.

Another problem, at least for some, is a process the county used to factor in foreclosures to home values. A foreclosure “stigma” was applied to homes in neighborhoods where foreclosures had an apparent impact on the values of other homes, with that number being higher or lower depending on how many foreclosures were in the neighborhood. The worst-hit areas were around northwest Charlotte and Mountain Island Lake, stretching across to east Charlotte, Hicks said. South Mecklenburg neighborhoods weren’t hit as hard with foreclosures.

“What we did was say, ‘Look, there are foreclosures in every neighborhood in the county. Let’s go ahead and include them in the analysis, regardless of the percentage of foreclosures in the neighborhood, and see if they have any impact whatsoever,’” Hicks explained.

SMART members have complained the process is flawed and unfair to some neighborhoods. The answer, they say, is to start over from scratch and either use the same foreclosure rate for all homes, or don’t use the rate for any homes.

“Throw the whole thing out, start over and get rid of the stigma adjustment,” Tim Timmerman, a leader with SMART, said. His group is pushing leaders in southern Mecklenburg towns, as well as Charlotte City Council, to pass resolutions calling for a special review of revaluation appraisals in south Mecklenburg. A similar resolution in Cornelius led to a public hearing in the area, where a homeowner brought forward new information that led the tax assessor’s office to recommend a special review of appraisals in the area.

SMART has been working with Bill James, the area’s representative on the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners, for the same type of special review the Lake Norman area is getting, a meeting to plead their case against the appraisals or just scrapping the whole process and starting over.

In an e-mail to SMART leaders this week, James told the group they should consider asking city and town leaders for the same sort of review, saying “I would imagine that to get that sort of adjustment for (southern) Mecklenburg will require the same sort of intensity on our part” as that of Cornelius-area residents.

Adjusting home values across the county with the higher foreclosure rate added in would likely drop the overall tax rate, James said, meaning less revenue for towns and the city – a scenario local leaders may want to avoid so they don’t have to cut budgets. So he’s not sure he’ll get the support he’s looking for.

“I’ve been complaining about this for eight months or more … the unfairness of this whole process,” James said in an interview this week. “I’m saying the tax assessor needs to determine that not including the stigma adjustment for all properties was an error and therefore (revaluation letters) need to be reissued.”

James said he can’t fix the issue himself, and the only help he’s getting on the board is from District 1 Representative Karen Bentley. James said the two have pressed the county’s attorneys on if applying a stigma to certain neighborhoods is even legal, but they’ve been told the county won’t research the legality of the process unless a majority of the board asks for a review.

“I think there is a sort of political reality where governments don’t want to open up that can of worms,” James said. “But I still think it’s the right thing to do. … I think the county is aware that what they did with the stigma adjustment is legally questionable. The fact that they refuse to (study the legality), to me, anyways, is a sign they know they have a problem.”

News of a “special review” in north Mecklenburg, and what they see as a lack of movement in south Mecklenburg by Charlotte leaders, is an example of “south Mecklenburg (getting) exploited and neglected again,” Timmerman, the SMART leader, said in an e-mail to the Weekly.

The tax assessor’s office, for its part, is asking people to just let the process unfold. Then, if there’s something wrong with their home’s estimated value, it can be caught in review. Because of the large amount of homeowners questioning the appraiser’s value of their homes, that review process is slow going. But Hicks, from the tax assessor’s office, urges people to bring any and all information they can find to help their own cause in the review process.

The special review for the Lake Norman area came about because homeowners brought new information to the assessor’s office at the Cornelius meeting. South Mecklenburg homeowners could do the same, either through a meeting of their own or just by bringing the information to the regular review already being done.

“I would recommend bringing any sales information that they have from their immediate neighborhood or any question they have about land values and allow the board the opportunity to look into it and be patient and allow the county to schedule as many people from the same neighborhoods as well,” Hicks said. Scheduling reviews of homes in the same area all at the same time can help the review board compare area issues better when they make their decision, Hicks added.

“We know there’s going to be errors. We know there’s going to be appraisal misjudgments here and there,” Hicks said. “But that’s what the review is for.”

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