MECKLENBURG COUNTY - Across Mecklenburg County, about two thirds of the county's homes are still in the process of having their tax values reviewed. It's the aftermath of a 2011 revaluation that county leaders have consistently said was flawed.
"It's not there yet but I think we're on the road to getting it right," said County Commission Chairman Trevor Fuller.
And yet, months after Fuller and other county commissioners agreed to spend millions of dollars to have a private appraisal company take a second look at tax values, some still aren't sure about the process.
"Whatever comes out of it, I hope the numbers are right, because right now they're not," says Jim Barnett, who headed the county's Board of Equalization and Review for more than a decade. That board handles appeals from homeowners who think their tax values were incorrect. Barnett and others on the board were forced out last year after ongoing complaints about the county's revaluation and subsequent homeowner appeals.
Today Barnett believes the current review by Pearson's Appraisal is flawed too. Asked why his criticism shouldn't be viewed as a case of "sour grapes," Barnett said, "The numbers speak for themselves."
The county's own property tax records, combined with recent home sales data, do raise questions about the accuracy of some of the county's latest values.
The 2011 revaluation initially valued one house on Lake Norman at $1.2 million. After the homeowner appealed, the value was dropped more than 25% to $894,000. But by May of 2012 that same house had sold for $1.3 million.
In another case we found a home with a tax value of $742,000 sold on February of 2012 for more than $1 million. That's more than 30% above the county's tax value. Why should homeowners care?
Those lower tax values allow property owners to lower their tax bills. Even though sales prices suggest they're worth much more. But Pearson's Appraisal, which has a multimillion-dollar contract to review all values from the 2011 revaluation, insists it's doing the best it can.
"I see them (houses) selling for more but there's not a lot we can do about it," said Fred Pearson. He points out that the law doesn't allow the county to consider any sales that happened after the revaluation officially took effect Jan. 1, 2011.
But if homes are selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars more than their tax value, does that suggest the revaluation and Pearson's own review is an imperfect science?
"We do mass appraisal work," Pearson said,"and yes, there is room for mistakes." Pearson says home sales since 2011 have begun to rise. But the nationally recognized Case-Shiller Index, which measures home sales in Charlotte as part of its national survey, showed little, if any increase in average home sales prices until well into 2013.
Eyewitness News found other oddities in the county's newest property values. One property on Lake Norman has a total tax value of $730,000. $700,000 of that is for the land itself. But the 3,000 square foot home, despite being remodeled twice in the last 10 years, has a tax value of just $13,900. Another property is listed for sale for $1.5 million but while the land is valued at $630,000 the 2,900-square foot house on the property is valued at just $12,200 by the county.
Mecklenburg County's tax assessor says that's because bigger, newer houses nearby could eventually make those houses "tear downs" that are worth little, if anything, to a prospective buyer.
But critic Jim Barnett says there's a bigger issue all taxpayers should care about. "The people who are getting those breaks are not paying their fair share of taxes," Barnett says. County Commission Chairman Trevor Fuller says he still believes in Pearson's Appraisal and its work reviewing county tax values.
But, he admits commissioners will need to keep a close eye on a process that continues to be controversial. "At the end of the day we need to make sure that the tax burden is equitable across the entire county," Fuller said. Convincing the public of that may continue to be the county's biggest challenge.