Update: The TCAD board meeting scheduled to be held March 25, 2021, and mentioned in this article was cancelled. Last word is that the organization is working to arrange a board meeting sometime during the week of April 5, 2021.
Leaves Travis Central Appraisal District in limbo leading into upcoming protest season
The Travis Appraisal Review Board (ARB) recently lost its chair, Storey Cordelle, who resigned effective March 9th after enduring unrelenting criticism from Travis Central Appraisal District (TCAD) board members in several recent meetings.
The flak was so intense that in the December 3, 2020, TCAD board meeting, Theresa Bastian, one of the board members appointed by Austin Independent School District (AISD), asked Cordelle if he had considered resigning.
To which he replied, “I’m not a quitter. I don’t give up.” But after enduring still more criticism in the January and February TCAD board meetings, he threw in the towel.
Most of the board’s criticism centered on costs that exceeded the 2020 budget for ARB operations to finish formal hearings of 2020 protests. The TCAD board December 3, 2020, approved an increase of $88,425 to cover ARB cost increases. When ARB hearings were conducted later than month the ARB expenses were still nearly $15,000 over budget.
And expenses were not the only concern. The chief appraiser sent a letter to the ARB’s consulting attorney, Julia Armstrong, that listed other concerns about how the ARB was being managed.
In his own defense, Cordelle told the board at the February 11th meeting that he was not the ARB chair when the 2020 budget was devised and he had no input into that process. He also said that the ARB performance and cost statistics presented to the board by the chief appraiser were at odds with his own calculations, based on information obtained from TCAD with a public information request.
No recognition was given to how the Covid-19 pandemic affected ARB operations in 2020. In-person ARB hearings were cancelled for safety reasons. Hearings were shifted to teleconferencing. As reported by the Bulldog September 8, 2020, the ARB lost 60 of its 150 members because they were unwilling to participate in remote hearings. Cordelle said at the time that future ARB applicants should be screened to ensure they had a computer, Internet connection, and telephone. The chief appraiser said then that the lack of ARB panels was the most significant obstacle to getting the work done.
Another thing not addressed in recent board meetings is how the ARB budget necessarily increased as more ARB members were appointed each year. According to statistical information presented in the adopted FY 2021 budget, in 2017 the ARB had 40 members drawing per diem, in 2018 there were 75 members, and in 2019 and 2020 there were 150 ARB members.
And the goal for 2021 was to have 200 ARB members—five times as many as 2017.
TCAD’s 2017 ARB budget was $339,660. TCAD’s 2021 ARB budget is $1,201,325.
The growth in ARB membership not only greatly increased costs but exponentially raised management complexity for the ARB chair—something any manager would have to endure with five times as many people to train, organize, and supervise.
Bad timing for a new ARB chair
Cordelle’s resignation leaves the ARB is a weakened position because TCAD anticipates “a record-setting number of protests in 2021.” Chief Appraiser Marya Crigler estimated the ARB will need to hold 80,000 to 85,000 hearings.
Hearings could start as early as May 15th but will more likely begin in early June. The protest season can’t begin until TCAD issues Notices of Appraised Values to property owners. At the February 11th board meeting, Crigler said staff was still trying to catch up, complete values, and get notices out.
As of 2pm March 16th, District Judge Lora Livingston, who serves as administrative judge and appoints all ARB members, had not appointed anyone to assume the duties of ARB chair. That position is usually appointed from among applicants who are both qualified and interested in the position.
The job may less appealing than it might otherwise be because of actions taken by the TCAD board of directors at its February 11th meeting. In fact, in a March 4th interview, Cordelle told The Austin Bulldog, “I have no idea of anybody who wants the job.”
Board split on slashing per diem rates
Given the comments made at recent meetings, it has become clear that some board members are inclined to cut per diem rates for ARB members.
Board Member Debbie Cartwright, a recent AISD appointee, asked Cordelle to come to the March 25th board meeting and present his plan for how the ARB will prepare to do its work in the 2021 protest season and stay within its budget. Now that Cordelle is out of the picture it’s not clear who would be responsible for preparing that plan.
Cartwright further made a motion to revert the per diem rates paid to ARB members to what they were paid in 2018. “That seems reasonable to me,” she said. Per diem is not salaries. They’re not employees. They’re appointed by the administrative judge.”
Once the motion was seconded, some board members objected, saying this is going to be a tough protest season and ARB members should be supported “as best we can.” It was noted that the ARB budgets in recent years escalated because far fewer protests were settled informally by TCAD staff, which drastically increased the number of formal hearings.
Votes on a motion to table Cartwright’s motion split the board 4-4 (with newly appointed City of Austin member Nicole Conley having left the meeting before the vote). Then Cartwright withdrew the motion. But reducing ARB per diem rates will be on the March 25th meeting agenda for further consideration.
The effect of reverting to 2018 rates would mean that the ARB members with the most years of experience will earning less per day’s work. The new ARB chair would earn $50 a day less—$225 instead of $275. The pay for the most senior rank-and-file ARB members who conduct formal hearings and decide property values would top out at $170 per day instead of $200. The most experienced ARB members will take pay cuts while dealing with perhaps the most complicated protest season ever because of the havoc played on property values by the pandemic.
Owners of commercial properties valued based on income will in many cases be arguing for lower values because of income losses attributed to the pandemic. This will affect the owners of small commercial properties, such as strip centers, as well as major commercial properties such as apartments, office buildings and shopping malls.
In addition, residential property owners likely will be hit with huge value increases because of two factors: First, residential properties were not reappraised in 2020. Second, Austin home prices are quickly escalating and driving up home values in general.
ARB costs in addition to hearings questioned
Cartwright also questioned why per diem costs of $16,195 was claimed from January 1st through February 5th. She asked how that could have been spent if there were no hearings.
Cordelle replied that expense was mostly for his per diem while doing administrative work. The ARB chair’s job description requires developing the infrastructure for processes and procedures for each year’s protest season, updating ARB policies and scripts due to legislative changes, and preparing a calendar for ARB training, hearings, and meetings. The chair also answers a continuing flow of email inquiries from property owners and agents.
The board seemed inclined to require all ARB expenses not directly related to participation in formal hearings be brought to the board for approval. TCAD board meetings are generally held no more than once a month. Which means the ARB chair, vice chair, and secretary, whose duties require them to do administrative work, will have to put in whatever hours are necessary and then not know when or if they will be paid for that work.
Bill Fields was appointed ARB chair in January 2020 and resigned that position June 1, 2020. His final payment for hours worked was delayed for months until the TCAD board finally approved the expense.
Cordelle was appointed his successor in June 2020 and lasted nine months.
The ARB chair preceding Fields was Betty Thompson, who held that post for about four years.
Cordelle’s terse resignation letter dated February 23rd stated, “It is with great regret that I tender my resignation from the TCAD ARB for personal reasons. I will be working the next two weeks to help transition the new chair. Tuesday, March 9, 2021, will be my last day.”
In a March 4th interview with the Bulldog Cordelle said, “I think what put me over the top was (the board) messing with per diem.”
Links to related documents:
Audio recording of TCAD board meeting of February 11, 2021 (1:34:21)
Chief Appraiser Marya Crigler’s letter to ARB attorney Julia Armstrong, February 3, 2021 (2 pages)
Storey Cordelle’s letter of resignation as ARB chair, February 23, 2021 (1 page)
Trust indicators: Ken Martin has been covering local government and politics in the Austin area since 1981 and investigating and reporting on Travis Central Appraisal District since 2011. See more about Ken on the About page.
Links to related Bulldog coverage:
Appraisal Review Board member rebuts criticisms, January 7, 2021
TCAD board hammers ARB chair over costs, delay, December 15, 2020
TCAD 2021 budget approved for $20.2 million, September 8, 2020
COVID-19 plans for appraisal review board hearings, June 1, 2020s
Deadline for property value protests this Friday, May 11, 2020
Protesting property values during COVID-19 emergency, April 15, 2020
Chief appraiser on a losing streak, March 17, 2020
TCAD to ABoR: thanks but no thanks, February 27, 2020
School districts blast appraisal districts, February 19, 2020
Judge undercuts chief appraiser’s authority, February 17, 2019
Appraisal review board and appraisal district sued, January 6, 2020
TCAD board rewards chief appraiser, December 19, 2019
TCAD 2020 to resume face-to-face informal protests, December 11, 2019
By every measure TCAD is having a bad year, December 1, 2019
TCAD board gets earful about impact of barring face-to-face appeals, November 18, 2019
TCAD alone in barring face-to-face informal protests, November 12, 2019
TCAD board member had dual homestead tax exemptions, October 20, 2019