PSI: Are you being overcharged for your vehicle taxes?

PSI: Vehicle tax investigation

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Assaf Weinberg's car is nothing fancy. It's a Nissan Altima he bought new in 2008. He says he paid about $21,000. Mecklenburg County thinks it's held it's value really well.

"I got an assessment here for $18,300," said Weinberg as he looked down at his motor vehicle tax bill.

He says if someone came along and offered him that price for the car he'd "take in a heartbeat."

Weinberg appealed the 2011 bill to the Mecklenburg County Tax Assessor. He put his case in writing and was asked if the car had any damage, or unusually high mileage.

"I'm like it's none of those things really," said Weinberg. "It's just priced too high."

He was right. The county looked at his case and knocked down the value by $3,000. So, imagine his surprise when the 2012 bill showed up in his mailbox. The value was exactly the same as the original bill from a year earlier.

"It made me kind of wonder where they got these numbers," said Weinberg.

TEC is the name of the company that provides the valuation prices.

"For the most part we would just use the standard data," said Bobbie Shields.

Shields is the interim Mecklenburg County Tax Assessor. He got the temporary job in the fallout of the home revaluation mess in the county. Shields says every county uses the TEC program. He says the values are comparable to what you'd find using the Kelly Blue Book, NADA or Edmunds.

It's just not readily available for anyone to see, including him.

"I do not have access to the data file that DMV would use to set the depreciation schedules," said Shields. "I'm going to look into that. If it's important to the customer, I'll see if on our website we can put some information out there about the actual data."

What's important to customers in accuracy. WBTV did some checking and found fewer than one percent of vehicle tax bills are appealed. The vast majority of those customers don't go through the formal appeals process spelled out on the back of the tax bill. Most just stop by the office with some proof their car is valued too high.

Mark Grzybowski, a WBTV News Producer, says he had no idea you could just stop by the office. He's appealed his bill several years running because of high miles on his 2007 vehicle. Every year he sends in the paperwork along with full payment. Every year he wins his appeal and has to wait to get a refund.

"I'll be doing it person next year," said Grzybowski.

Shields said customers can be out in 10 to 15 minutes. He said a determination and a bill adjustment can be made right there on the spot. Shields also said the majority of customers who appeal, win and see their bills reduced. But with fewer than one percent actually appealing and at least some not realizing you can do it quickly and in person it leaves a question. How many people don't bother trying to appeal? We wanted to do a spot check of Mecklenburg County's tax bills to see if inaccuracies can be found easily.

"We don't have that information on line," said Mecklenburg County Tax Collector Neal Dixon. "That's a federal law."

The federal law Dixon referred to is the "Drivers Privacy Protection Act" or DPPA. It was passed in 1994 to keep vehicle records, like license plate information private. It was for safety reasons. Mecklenburg County maintains that extends to tax records. No other county in North Carolina interprets the law that way. Most put the tax part of those records on-line.

We asked Dixon if everyone is else is breaking the law.

"Well, I'm not in a position to judge what they have done," said Dixon. "I just believe we're doing it correctly."

North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper doesn't think so. He said as much in an opinion in 2005. He wrote, the law "allows a local taxing authority to release vehicle tax information in accordance with North Carolina's Public Records Act."

Real estate tax information is available on-line and Mecklenburg County is more than willing to publish the names of those who haven't paid those taxes in the newspaper. The delinquency rate on real estate is between 5 and 7%. The delinquency rate on motor vehicle taxes is actually much higher.  It can be up to 35%, but in Mecklenburg County the public cannot find out who hasn't paid their bill.

As for Assaf Weinberg and that 2012 bill that was again too high, he appealed again and won again. It knocked $50 dollars off his bill.

"It's not a lot of money for me," said Weinberg. "It's kind of the principal of it."

It's why all customers should look at their bill closely and compare the value to what you'd find using a price service. Miles are the biggest variable.  If you are putting more than 25,000 miles on your car a year, you have a good chance to win an appeal.

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