Updated Feb. 25, 12:20 p.m.
By CHRISTINA RITCHIE ROGERS
Enlisting expert help may be the best hope for citizens appealing their 2011 property tax revaluations, Cornelius Mayor Jeff Tarte said Friday morning during the monthly “Focus Friday” issues session at Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce. One such expert, Buck Moody, told the crowd of about 30 people that recent independent appraisals can help, and so can a close attention to possible errors in the county’s calculations.
“Unfortunately (hiring an expert) means more investment up-front,” Mayor Tarte said, but the outcome of the appeal will affect you for the next 4 years.
Friday’s meeting comes as thousands of property owners in Mecklenburg County are still waiting for hearings to appeal their county property assessments.
Mr. Moody, a senior manager with Thomson Reuters Property Tax Services, said he has testified at about 90 appeals before the Mecklenburg County Board of Equalization and Review (a citizen body that hears the second round of appeals) over the past five months. He shared some tips for preparing documents for an appeal. For example:
- Independent appraisals. To be considered, all appraisals must have a valuation date of Jan. 1, 2011. Mr. Moody said he has seen the board immediately disregard appraisals dated after the first of the year. So while it is a good idea for owners to bring to their hearing independent appraisals of their property and the properties around them, he said, they must be sure the appraisers’ valuation date is Jan. 1, 2011.
- Functional obsolescence. While two homes may be on similar lots with similar square footage, the age of the homes and their amenities may be very different, Mr. Moody said. For example, a 40-year-old lake house may not have the same assets and market value as a home built within the last decade, he said.
- Errors. Property owners should check for errors in calculation, assumed square footage, numeric typos, and other possible mistakes.
- Units of measurement. Break comparable assessments down into units of comparison, such as value per square foot, or feet of lake frontage, Mr. Moody said.
CITIZENS WANT ANSWERS
The chamber picked revaluation as the topic of this month’s Focus Friday meeting in response to concerns and confusion surrounding appeals of the county’s 2011 revaluation. Town and county leaders have said they continue to hear from constituents who are displeased with the results of their 2011 revaluations and distrust the appeals process.
One concern is the discrepancy between property values from independent appraisers and those from the county appraisers, Mayor Tarte said. Peninsula resident Bob Deaton over the past year has gathered data from homeowners on the lake, and he said on average the county’s assessments were 35 percent higher than independent assessments for the properties near his home.
“What it makes us feel like is the county’s working towards a number,” one resident at the meeting said, and others in the room nodded in agreement.
Earlier this month, elected officials in Cornelius sent a letter to Mecklenburg County Commissioners requesting that the county stop hearing revaluation appeals until officials can respond to citizens’ concerns. But at its Feb. 7 meeting the county board learned that under state law it could not stop the process, which means the county assessor’s office must proceed with the nearly 4,000 remaining appeals. [See Feb. 8, 2012, "County can't stop reval appeals."]
Once the county starts the revaluation and appeals process, it is unable to stop, County Attorney Marvin Bethune said at the Feb. 7 meeting. The process is regulated under a state law called the Machinery Act, established 40 years ago.
“I think the only way we’re going to resolve this in the long run is to change the statutes,” said Mayor Tarte, who also is running for the District 41 state Senate seat.
County Commissioner Karen Bentley, who also attended the Focus Friday meeting, said a month ago N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis (R-Cornelius) asked her to serve on a task force charged with recommending changes to the Machinery Act.
“We’ve got to craft a law that allows for some flexibility,” she said, and the task force’s recommendations likely will go before the state during its 2014 long session.
Also, the County Commission at its March 6 meeting will discuss conducting the next revaluation in four years, and then every two years following, Commissioner Bentley said. Such a change could help avoid the drastic changes in property values seen in the 2011 revaluation, which was the first in eight years, she said.
While changing the legislation and revaluation schedule may fix some problems, citizens still must get through their 2011 appeals, and local groups are considering joint action. Former Cornelius Commissioner Jim Bensman is organizing a citizen group to collect data and possibly file a formal complaint against the county assessor’s office. He also wants county commissioners to request a performance audit for the office, he said.
“There’s an assumption being made that the assessor’s office is functioning according to the statutes, and they’re not,” Mr. Bensman said.
Huntersville resident John Aneralla, also a candidate for the District 41 state Senate seat, said state officials are looking into a large number of cases in Mecklenburg County to make sure no areas received special treatment and that taxpayers across the country were treated fairly in the revaluation. N.C. Sen. Bob Rucho (R-Matthews) chairs the Revenue Laws Study Committee, and according to Mr. Aneralla, Sen. Rucho said the committee has asked for a review of hundreds of cases throughout the county.
“It’s another measure of independent oversight really,” Mr. Aneralla said.
Mayor Tarte said he believes the assessor’s office is following the existing statutes “to a T,” and that the problem lies in the “inherent flaws” in the overall process. He said the law must be changed to allow for “fairness” and “common sense.”
CITIZEN MEETING AT TOWN HALL FEB. 28
Tuesday, Feb. 28, 7 p.m. at Cornelius Town Hall
The purpose of Tuesday’s meeting, led by Jim Bensman, is to gather data and compile a report to present to the Board of County Commissioners. The group could potentially file a formal complaint to the State Attorney General, Mr. Bensman said, and he hopes some of the citizens will volunteer to work on preparing the report. There will be no formal presentation Tuesday.
The following is the information the group hopes to gather at the meeting. If you cannot attend the meeting, you can still share your information. Email it to: Jim Bensman
Appeals information wanted:
1. Copies of all submitted Appeal Forms along with any correspondence or forms from the assessor.
2. Results of your initial appeal with a fee paid appraisal.
a. Did the Appraisal include sales after 1/1/2011?
b. Did the Appraisal include the so-called qualified sales used by the assessor or just the normal neighborhood sales?
c. Did you think the initial appeal was a Formal Appeal?
3. Results of your initial appeal without a fee paid appraisal.
a. Did you subsequently obtain a fee paid appraisal.
4. Results of a formal appeal to the BER? (Written or verbal)
a. Reasons appeal accepted or value adjusted.
b. Reasons appeal rejected.
c. Did you use anyone to help at the BER meeting such as an attorney, etc.
d. Did the BER say whether your appraisal was used in their review and if not, why not.
5. Has anyone appealed to the State?
6. Flaws found in the process used by the assessor, especially any known violations of the law. An example would be the online comparative sales tool that doesn’t indicate how the qualified sales were used.
7. Any reasons provided (written or verbal) by the assessor or rejection of the appeal.
8. Any proof that the assessor has data on the water depth in front of waterfront lots?
9. Comparable sales analysis done by homeowners showing discrepancies in how their value was obtained.
10. Any phone conversations with the assessor’s office during the process.
11. Any specific data from other people regarding their BER appeal results.