Inequities in assessments spark tax controversy in North Carolina's banking hub.
Charlotte, the largest city in North Carolina, is the second largest banking center in the United States. Like the larger New York financial cluster, Charlotte suffered grievous job losses and deflation of property values during the Great Recession. As the seat of Mecklenburg County, Charlotte is also at the center of a tax reform effort marked by record numbers of taxpayer protests, the resignation of the tax assessor and an ongoing attempt by state lawmakers to correct local valuation inequities.
Essentially, the lengthy intervals up to eight years — that North Carolina law allows between revaluations, combined with the effects of deteriorating property values since the onset of the recession, set the stage for a valuation imbroglio for property owners in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County.
Prior to its 2011 revaluation, Mecklenburg had last revalued in 2003. The county planned at that time to revalue in 2007. During the course of the last cycle, however, county commissioners decided to postpone the revaluation until 2009. After the banking crisis and resulting real estate market crash of 2008, when real estate sales largely ceased, commissioners postponed the revaluation to 2010, and then postponed it again until 2011, the eighth year in the cycle, when by law the revaluation had to occur. Presumably, political leaders intended the postponements to allow the real estate market an opportunity to stabilize, and perhaps recover.
Those good intentions and the resulting series of postponements proved to be major contributors to what must be regarded as a blown revaluation, despite the best efforts of what has egnerally been regarded as a highly competent assessor and staff.
The assessments produced significant overvaluations of many properties and sparked mass protests from homeowners in sections of the county and a heated debate punctuated by the county assessor's resignation. Taxpayers had filed 1,542 appeals to the North Carolina Property Tax Commission from the Mecklenburg County Board of Equalization and Review as of mid-April this year, the largest number by far from any revaluation in North Carolina's history.
Pearson's Appraisal Service, an outside consultant the county hired to study the revaluation, reviewed a random sample of the revaluation results and discovered major issues. Although much of the revaluation met acceptable assessment standards, the consultant identified inconsistencies involving both uniformity of assessment and valuation in residential neighborhoods which were heterogeneous with in-fill and tear-down activity and in neighborhoods where the current use might not be the highest and best use.
Problems also emerged in connection with commercial properties, including certain office, retail and hotel categories. Substantial problems turned up involving land valuations in addition to many other issues that the consultant characterized
Although the county commissioners voted to expand the consultant's study, they were constrained by a state law that prohibits retroactive valuation adjustments and taxpayer refunds for years when assessments had not previously been appealed. Amid continuing and widespread voter dissatisfaction, legislators, with the support of the county commission, introduced unprecedented legislation on March 4, 2013, to correct the 2011 revaluation.
North Carolina's constitution prohibits classifications of property for taxation except on a statewide basis, and provides that "every classification shall be made by general law uniformly applicable in every county, city and town, and other unit of local government." Another section of the constitution prohibits local legislation extending the time for the levy or collection of taxes.
Attempting to draft constitutional legislation that would address Mecklenburg County's unique revaluation needs, lawmakers worded Senate Bill 159 and its House counterpart, HB 200, to be ostensibly applicable statewide, but with preconditions to application of the statute that only Mecklenburg County is likely to meet.
The North Carolina Senate passed SB 159 unanimously on March 28, and after amendment in the House, the bill was returned to the Senate, which concurred in the House amendments on July 18. SB 159 provides that the county must conduct a general reappraisal within 18 months if the following is found to exist:
Once in possession of this information, the county would be required under SB 159 to correct incorrect assessments to reflect true value as of Jan. 1, 2011, and apply those corrected values for later years in the revaluation cycle. Refunds would be automatically made, with interest, and under-assessments based on the new values would be subject to discovery assessments under existing tax statutes, but without being subject to normal discovery penalties.
Based on the legislative action, it appears that the Mecklenburg revaluation will drag on for some time. Since the county will be reviewing values, the legislation appears to open the door for taxpayers to identify assessments they think unfair and draw them to the attention of the county for review. And as the legislative note accompanying the bill provides, "a taxpayer or county may have standing to challenge" the legislation and "it is unknown whether a court would find the bill to be local in nature or non-uniform."
In other words, lawmakers recognize the potential for a court to rule the legislation as unconstitutional.