Appraisal review board and appraisal district sued

HomeLitigationAppraisal review board and appraisal district sued

Five Stone Tax Advisers seeks court order for Travis Appraisal Review Board to conduct protest hearings

Bill Aleshire
Bill Aleshire

Attorney Bill Aleshire today filed suit on behalf of plaintiffs Anthony Sessa and 137 property owners who are clients of Five Stone Tax Advisers LLC, an Austin-based company that acts as agent for property owners who protest the valuations assigned by the Travis Central Appraisal District (TCAD). (Cause No. D-1-GN-20-000049, copy linked below.)

The petition seeks a court order that would force the Travis Appraisal Review Board (TARB) to conduct hearings, hear evidence of property values presented by property tax agents and the appraisal district, and decide what values would be assigned to each of the properties.

“It is utterly ridiculous that these taxpayers are having the sue the Travis appraisal district and appraisal review board just to get a timely hearing on their 2019 tax protest,” Aleshire said. “But whoever is responsible at TCAD or TARB for ‘adjourning’ the review board back in October when their work was not finished, deserves to be hauled into court and ordered to give these taxpayers their protest hearings.”

The petition claims that TCAD failed to send timely notices of protest hearings scheduled for these properties and then dismissed these cases when the agents failed to appear.

If these cases are not quickly resolved, the property owners will have to pay 2019 property taxes by January 31, 2020, based on TCAD’s disputed valuations.

“There is no legal excuse for a governmental body to just take the winter and spring off when there are taxpayers entitled to a protest hearing before their taxes come due on January 31st,” Aleshire said.

In plaintiff Sessa’s case, the petition states, “even after the TARB admitted that the TCAD support staff had failed to send him a notice of his hearing and agreed to reschedule his hearing, TARB announced it ‘adjourned for the 2019 tax protest season … and he would not get a protest hearing of his 2019 taxes ‘until spring/summer of 2020.’”

Messages and emails sent late this afternoon seeking comments from the appraisal district and the law firm representing the Appraisal Review Board were not immediately returned.

Marya Crigler

In responding to the lawsuit, Chief Appraiser Marya Crigler provided the following statement received at 9:53am Tuesday January 7, 2020:

“The Travis Central Appraisal District maintains that Five Stone Tax Advisers was given timely notice of protest hearings for all of its clients and we look forward to proving so in court. The Travis Appraisal Review Board, which operates independently from the appraisal district, has already found this to be true. It is unfortunate that Five Stone put its clients in this position by refusing to attend their hearings, despite knowing that they were scheduled.”

(Disclosure: Aleshire has represented The Austin Bulldog in two public information lawsuits in 2011. He also advises the Bulldog on public information requests.)

Notices of hearings misdirected

Debra Bawcom

An affidavit signed by Debra Bawcom, CEO of Texas Protax, was included as an exhibit in the lawsuit. It lists several instances in which hearing notices received by Texas Protax were actually meant for other companies that represented property owners, including Lewis Property Tax Services, Texas Tax Protest, and Valor Tax Solutions.

Aleshire said, “This lawsuit exposes the problems created when the ARB has to rely on the Chief Appraiser’s staff to do things like send ARB hearing notices out; a task that the staff messed up several times. Another dumb reason we have to go to court just to get an ARB hearing.”

Texas Protax concerns about these matters were reported by email to the TARB chair and were not answered, the affidavit states.

Bawcom’s affidavit states that Texas Protax still has 52 pending protests for which the company never received hearing notices.

Second time sued over denied hearings

As previously reported by The Austin Bulldog, Aleshire represented both Five Stone and Texas Protax in a similar lawsuit against the TARB, alleging that more than 150 property owners were denied their legal right to a hearing before the TARB to protest their 2018 property valuations.

At issue in that lawsuit was whether the chief appraiser—who by law is permitted upon request of the TARB to provide clerical assistance in scheduling protest hearings—exceeded her authority by actually controlling the hearing schedules and doing so in a way that caused the unlawful dismissal of appraisal protests without a hearing.

On January 9, 2019, the parties involved in that suit announced they had reached a settlement, which provided the property owners would be provided with hearings on their 2018 appraisal protests.

The statement announcing the settlement stated, “All of the parties look forward to working together to improve the appraisal protest process for 2019.”

Ultimately that did not happen, as the chief appraiser unilaterally directed that 2019 valuation protests must be filed through an online portal and there would be no face-to-face meetings in which property owners or their agents could meet informally with a staff appraiser to exchange evidence and try to arrive at a mutually agreeable valuation.

As reported by The Austin Bulldog December 1, 2019, while the number of protests filed in 2019 was nearly identical to the number filed in 2018, the number of formal protests more than doubled, ARB costs went up more than 600 percent, and complaints also more than doubled.

This story was updated at 10:09am Tuesday January 7, 2020, to include the chief appraiser’s response.

Links to documents:

Anthony Sessa and 137 property owner/clients of Five Stone Tax Advisors LLC v Travis Appraisal Review Board and Travis Central Appraisal District (47 pages)

Related Bulldog coverage:

Lawsuit seeks property tax hearings, December 17, 2018

Trust indicators:

Ken Martin has been covering local government and politics in the Austin area since 1981. See more on Ken on the About page.

Email [email protected].

Who funds this work? This report was made possible by contributions to The Austin Bulldog, which operates as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit for investigative reporting in the public interest. You can help support this independent coverage by making a tax-deductible contribution.

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