Appraisal Review Board member rebuts criticisms

0
676
Screen shot of TCAD board meeting held via Zoom January 7, 2021. TCAD Board Chair James Valadez and Board Member Felipe Ulloa were present but not shown.

Claims ‘blindside attack’ by chief appraiser at previous TCAD board meeting

Thomas “Tom” King addressed the Travis Central Appraisal District’s Board of Directors at its January 7, 2021, meeting during Citizens Communications. After the meeting, King told The Austin Bulldog that he is now in his sixth year as a member of the Travis Appraisal Review Board and served one year as vice chairman of that board in 2019.

Marya Crigler

“I want to talk a little bit about the blindside attack made by the Chief Appraiser (Marya Crigler) at your last Board of Directors meeting on December 3rd,” King told the board. “I call it a blindside attack because the charts and pages concerning the ARB, its budgeted cost overrun, the high cost of doing hearings, and the per diem payment to ARB members that the Chief Appraiser showed, were not available to the public before your meeting nor were they available to the ARB before the meeting.”

Continuing the practice brought about by the pandemic, TCAD board meetings are conducted via a Zoom session. King was not visible when making his remarks and he declined to provide the Bulldog with a photograph.

The Travis ARB is not part of TCAD. It is a separate legal entity but TCAD provides administrative support and funding.

Storey Cordelle

King was responding to the harsh criticisms levied by TCAD board members at their December 3, 2020, meeting, concerning the costs and delays in ARB operations under the leadership of Chair Storey Cordelle. The Austin Bulldog reported those criticisms December 15, 2020.

He said that some of the charts that Chief Appraiser Marya Crigler used in her December 3 presentation about ARB performance were in error for Bexar, Dallas and Fort Bend counties. (See King’s complete written statement that he read to the board. He did not read the final paragraph because Board Chair James Valadez said his time was up.)

Cynthia Martinez

TCAD Communications Director Cynthia Martinez responded via email to the Bulldog’s request for comments about the charts: “We have no reason to believe that the numbers used in the December 3 presentation were inaccurate as they came directly from the appraisal districts themselves.”

King stated the number of property value protests settled informally through meetings with TCAD staff appraisers had declined from 66 percent in 2017 and 2018 to just 23 percent and 10 percent in 2019 and 2020, respectively. Meanwhile, he said, the costs of ARB conducting formal protest hearings had jumped to $1.5 million in 2019 and would exceed $1.2 million in 2020.

Those costs are a direct result of reducing the number of informal settlements and forcing more protests to go through formal hearings.

“So, you, as a Board of Directors, need to this year decide: Do you want TCAD to ‘negotiate’ value appeals and reach back to that 60 percent informal agreements level and go back to $400,000 ARB costs? Or do you want TCAD to continue to have ARB costs at the $1.2 million to $1.5 million range?”

King then answered his own question: “With asking the Travis County Judge to appoint a sufficient number of new members to reach 200 ARB Members, it sounds to me as if you want the $1.5 million cost level.”

TCAD board members did not respond to King’s remarks.

The Bulldog followed up with a question after the meeting as to why the January 7 board agenda did not include an update from the ARB Chair on ARB operations, as the board asked be included at its December 3 meeting.

In response, Martinez provided the following statement to be attributed to Board Chair James Valadez:

James Valadez

“TCAD staff contacted the ARB chair prior to the finalization of the agenda and information packet for the January 7 board meeting. The ARB chair notified staff that he did not have anything to present to the board. As a result, an update from the ARB chair was not added to the meeting’s agenda. The Texas Open Meetings Act requires that a finalized board meeting agenda be published at least 72 hours before a meeting and that items not on the agenda cannot be discussed or voted on. Therefore, the TCAD Board of Directors was unable to allow the ARB chair’s last-minute request to be added to the agenda. The ARB chair’s request will be added to the agenda for the February 11 meeting. We look forward to hearing from him regarding his plans to ensure that the ARB does not have another protest season with inefficient management that casually spends taxpayer money.”

King did not respond to the Bulldog’s follow-up telephone call and email to ask where he got the number of formal hearings held by Bexar, Dallas and Fort Bend ARBs.

Board changes

As is its custom the TCAD board elected officers to serve for the new calendar year. In fact, they reelected all three: James Valadez as board chair,  Bruce Grube as vice chair, and Theresa Bastian as secretary-treasurer.

Debbie Cartwright

The TCAD board gained a new member who was present for the first time. Deborah “Debbie” Cartwright is one of two board members appointed by the Austin Independent School District. She is replacing AISD appointee Ryan Steglich. AISD confirmed that Steglich did not seek reappointment.

Cartwright is unusually well qualified for this position. She is an attorney who graduated from the University of Houston Law School in December 1985 and licensed in May 1986, according to online records maintained by the State Bar of Texas. A biography found online states that Cartwright, a native of Elgin, Texas, retired in June 2019 after a lengthy career as an attorney and administrator in Texas property taxation. Before retiring she worked with the Texas Taxpayers and Research Organization 2016-2019 providing legal counsel during the 85th and 86th sessions of the Texas Legislature. Before that she practiced law with three firms, served as general counsel for the Bexar Appraisal District, and worked for the Office of the Texas Comptroller. She was director of the Property Tax Assistance Division for Comptroller Susan Combs from 2009 to 2014 and assistant general counsel for Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn from 2001 to 2006. In practicing law she represented appraisal districts in both district and appellate courts.

When introduced at the board meeting, Cartwright said, “I’m privileged to use my experience this way.”

Blanca Zamora-Garcia, one of two City of Austin appointees to the TCAD board, was absent from this meeting. The other city representative on the board is awaiting appointment to replace Eleanor Powell.

Board actions

Chief Appraiser Crigler reported that staff is in the midst of preparing the 2021 appraisal rolls and field work is underway, but with limited scope for physical inspections. The valuation process will soon be started, she said.

Protests need hearings—Crigler said that about 2,500 formal protests for 2020 remain to be heard by the ARB, an “overwhelming number” of which had requested in-person hearings or rescheduling. “Only 10 were timely filed and never got a hearing. Given we’re at Stage 5” on pandemic restrictions it’s not prudent to give in-person hearings but those will be done “as soon as it’s safe.”

Aggressive outreach planned—Crigler said that webinars will be held, starting next week with one on the subject of tax exemptions. She said that board member Bruce Elfant, Travis County’s tax assessor-collector, would join in that presentation to address tax payments. Additional webinars on homestead exemptions will be  held in February and March, she said, to encourage homeowners to file for homestead exemptions. She said in March a webinar may be added to provide information on the Notices of Appraised Values that TCAD issues to all property owners in Travis County. In April and May webinars will be provided to inform property owners how to file protests of appraised values. “We’re trying to do one a month,” Crigler said.

The webinar schedule and a registration button is posted on the TCAD website. The first webinar is scheduled to be start at 11am Thursday February 14.

Board Member Cartwright complimented Crigler on the outreach, saying she had seen a report in the news. Crigler credited Communications Director Martinez for her work in getting that news coverage.

Agriculture advisors appointed—Crigler said TCAD had four members for which reappointment were pending: Dan Dierschke, Cliff Kesler, Linda Hall, and Tommy Miertschin. Meeting materials indicate that: Diershke is a fifth-generation agriculture producer; Kessler, who retired from TCAD after 25 years, farms in eastern Travis County; Hall has been ranching in Travis County for 45 years; and Miertschin is the Travis County executive director for the Farm Service Agency. (See complete biographies at page 50 of the meeting materials.) They would serve new terms through December 31, 2022. Terms for the other two advisory board members, Mauri Pottuu and Larry Melenbruch, will expire December 31, 2021.

Texas Tax Code Section 6.12 states that agriculture advisory board members must be landowners in the appraisal district and residents for at least five years. Members are not entitled to compensation but advise the chief appraiser on the valuation and use of land that may be designated for agricultural use or that may be open space agricultural or timber land within the district.

The four reappointments were approved by unanimous vote.

Taxing jurisdiction extensions—Nine taxing entities have not paid their fourth quarter 2020 payments that were due September 30, 2020. Interest and penalties were due to start January 1, 2021, in amounts ranging from as little as $0.44 from Travis County Municipal Utility District No. 19 to $4,793.46 for the City of Creedmore. (See page 80 of the meeting materials.)

. TCAD Operations Manager Leana Mann requested the TCAD waive penalties and interest through January 31 for all of them. Chief Appraiser Crigler supported the request and attributed the tardy payments to the pandemic. In the past requests of this nature were brought case by case to the board but she wanted to be proactive in this case. The board voted unanimously to approve the extensions.

In other actions the board voted unanimously to:

  • Adopt an investment strategy and policy as required by the Public Funds Investment Act. (See pages 52 to 72 of the meeting materials.)
  • Award a contract to BIS Consulting to provide GIS professional services to TCAD for an hourly rate of $43.50. Heartland GIS, the other bidder, had offered services for $100 an hour. TCAD Operations Manager Mann said staff had worked with BIS for two years and were happy with its services. (See page 74 of the meeting materials.) Contract terms will be negotiated to determine the total cost of the contract within the constraints of TCAD’s budget. For more information see the RFP.
  • Issue a new Request for Proposals for professional audit services to perform TCAD’s annual audit. No responses were received and TCAD will issue a new RFP and do outreach to more firms. See the previous RFP.
  • Award a new contract to VariVerge LLC, TCAD’s current print vendor, for printing and mailing services. Crigler said TCAD does a high volume of printing and mailing to send out Notices of Appraised Values and must have a vendor with specialized experience. (See page 78 of the meeting materials.) Mann said fees are negotiated annually and this firm is used by multiple entities across the state. Contract terms will be negotiated to determine the total cost of the contract within the constraints of TCAD’s budget. See the RFP.

Links to related documents:

ARB Member Thomas King’s prepared remarks given January 7, 2020, during Citizens Communications (1 page)

TCAD Board of Directors Meeting audio recording, January 7, 2021 (48 minutes 53 seconds)

TCAD Board of Directors Meeting materials for January 7, 2021 (80 pages)

TCAD Press Release encouraging property owners to file homestead exemptions, January 4, 2021 (1 page)

Trust indicators:

Photo of Ken MartinKen 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:

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

Property value protest hearings harshly criticized, August 29, 2019

Jam-packed hearings for protesting property values, August 16, 2019

TCAD flubs public notice for hearing on Proposed 2020 Budget, August 9, 2019

TCAD loses Catherine Tower lawsuits at cost of nearly $850,000, July 23, 2019

TCAD loses landfill lawsuit at cost of nearly $1 million, July 16, 2019

New offices for Travis Central Appraisal District, July 15, 2019

Deputy chief appraiser abruptly resigns, July 10, 2019

Appraisal Review Board heads off lawsuit, June 12, 2019

New procedures undermine appraisal process, June 6, 2019

Lawsuit Seeks Property Tax Hearings, December 17, 2018

Homestead Exemptions a Tax Loophole,” February 26, 2014

Homestead Exemptions Rife With Abuse, December 20, 2013

Chris Riley Nailed for Back Taxes, August 20, 2014

Appraisal District to End Records Suppression, November 22, 2011

Appraisal Records Hidden from Public View, November 18, 2011

Are Austin’s Property Taxes Fair and Equitable? July 30, 2010