Equipping NC tax offices for success

A textbook titled "Listing, Assessment, and Taxation of Property in North Carolina" and a bookmark branded with the Zacchaeus Legal Services logo sit next to greenery, a black ink pen, and a UNC School of Government mug.

Local government services reach community members in myriad ways: delivering meals to the elderly, maintaining roads, establishing COVID-19 vaccination clinics, providing police and fire response, and much more.

Few of those community members would describe themselves as someone who loves paying taxes. But the reality is that property taxes provide more than 50 percent of county revenue and 30 percent of municipal revenue in North Carolina. These are unrestricted funds, meaning they can be used for any legal purpose.

“Taxes are one of the few areas that touch everybody who lives in a county or city,” said School faculty member and taxation law expert Chris McLaughlin. “Whether you own or rent property, someone is paying property taxes.”

This widespread impact means tax offices and their employees play an important role in their local communities. McLaughlin seeks to provide education and advising to these public officials that leads to consistent and fair application of the law. A wide variety of collaborators make this work possible.

Nearly from the time of McLaughlin’s arrival at the School in 2008, that list of collaborators has included Mark D. Bardill, president of Zacchaeus Legal Services. Now, Zacchaeus is partnering with the School to provide additional educational materials for tax officials, free of charge.

“I learn from our clients as much as they learn from me,” McLaughlin said. “We learn how to apply the law from clients, statutes, and court opinions. Practitioners like Mark provide a lot of practical knowledge in these areas and it’s important for our tax offices to understand how to interact with local government and outside attorneys.”

“There aren’t many people who practice in this area of law,” Bardill said. “There are a lot of unique circumstances and it’s very public. We want to handle things correctly and fairly.”

Bardill has worked in the area of tax foreclosure services since the 1980s. During that span, he’s counted on advising from School of Government faculty members including William Campbell, former associate director of the Institute of Government; Shea Denning, current Robert W. Bradshaw Jr. Distinguished Term Professor of Public Law and Government and director of the North Carolina Judicial College; and now, McLaughlin.

His decades of experience mean he has witnessed first-hand the value of the School’s expansive educational offerings for local governments, elected officials, and the judicial system.

“The School of Government is in nearly every avenue of what our local governments provide to citizens,” Bardill said. “It’s not just our tax offices. It’s how judges handle themselves, it’s how planners look at their roles. We are big believers in the School of Government.”

It was Bardill’s respect for the School—and his long professional relationship with McLaughlin—that would lay the groundwork for a partnership to benefit North Carolina’s tax officials.

McLaughlin teaches two courses that may be used to gain certification from the North Carolina Tax Collectors’ Association: Fundamentals of Property Tax Collection (required course) and Property Tax Listing and Assessing in North Carolina. Through a course sponsorship gift to the School of Government, Zacchaeus Legal Services now provides textbooks free of charge to those course participants, giving officials a tangible resource they can use in their daily work.

“Some of our smaller communities and counties are so under-resourced,” Bardill says. “They should have the same advantages that larger, more wealthy counties and towns have. Everyone that engages in this area deserves to be trained uniformly and according to the law. It promotes a better foreclosure program if there is a vein of fairness running through every case we handle.”

Because no training can prepare tax officials for every situation they will face, it is critical to equip local government employees with the tools needed to make good decisions.

“The law and the courts haven’t defined answers to every situation that arises,” McLaughlin said. “Some discretion has to be involved. Officials need to be consistent, equitable, and fair with taxpayers.”

Ensuring fair treatment under the law is integral to Zacchaeus Legal’s sponsorship of McLaughlin’s courses.

“We want the person in Manteo to be trained in the same law and procedure as a person in Murphy, Warrenton, or Laurinburg,” Bardill said. “When the issue of fairness comes up, we want to be in the room. We want to be part of that conversation. Fairness is the garden in which good government grows.”


To learn more about course sponsorship opportunities with the School of Government, please contact Assistant Dean for Advancement Brad Mallard at brad.mallard@sog.unc.edu