Despite massive attrition suffered by the Appraisal Review Board that conducts formal protest hearings
For the first time in three years the Travis Central Appraisal District (TCAD) certified the appraisal roll by July 20th, the statutory deadline.
Certifying the appraisal rolls on time is critically important for the 136 taxing jurisdictions that TCAD services. Taxing jurisdictions rely on a timely certified roll to establish the total value of their tax base. That data is needed for jurisdictions to prepare their annual budgets and set tax rates for the coming year.
The goal was achieved despite an alarming number of resignations by appointed Appraisal Review Board (ARB) members.
Even more importantly, records show there was no way the appraisal roll could have certified on time without what amounts to last-minute settlements TCAD offered to some 50 agent firms representing property owners in formal protests.
Collectively these firms represented thousands of properties worth billions of dollars for which formal protests had been lodged but for which formal hearings had not yet been held by the ARB.
To meet the certification threshold, property values of “approximately $284.5 billion” had to be settled, according to the ARB chair.
Upon getting positive responses from agents, TCAD filed Joint Motions with the ARB to reflect the property value determination for each accepted offer. The ARB in turn issued Agreed Orders for each of those properties.
Senate Bill 2531, authored by Senator Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe) was enacted by unanimous votes in both the Texas House and Senate in 2019, and became law January 1, 2020. That legislation amended then-current law relating to the disposition of ad valorem tax protests by means of Agreed Orders.
As a result, TCAD and agents were able to settle nearly 64,000 formal protests through Agreed Orders, according to TCAD’s response to a public information requests.
That’s 10 times as many protests resolved in 2021 through Agreed Orders (also known as Topline Settlements) as were resolved that way in 2019. (See chart below.)
Chief appraiser’s statements about certification
Chief Appraiser Marya Crigler told the TCAD Board of Directors at its August 30th meeting, “So the ARB has done an excellent job in getting through the volume of work. We did get certified timely. We certified and got our information to the taxing entities on July 20th this year, which was in advance of the deadline that the board gave them. So we are really pleased with the progress that we’ve made and we are on target to substantially complete all of our protests.”
When board members asked what contributed to the on-time certification, Crigler replied, “We had more participation from the tax agents in informal settlement conferences. We had that system that we put in place where they could dial in and meet with an appraiser virtually, and we had a lot more participation at an informal level.
“We also had a lot more participation in Toplines. So a significant portion of the protests that we did, all of the protests that were resolved, 75 percent of them were resolved either through informal agreement or topline agreement.”
“Toplines,” Crigler said, are offers made to agents after discussions. “They may or may not accept the offer, but they can request a Topline. It resolves the protest at the ARB level but still allows them to pursue it through arbitration or district court if they so choose.”
The offers were take it or leave it
Crigler’s summary of actions didn’t get into the details. Analysis of records obtained through multiple public information requests show that TCAD sent settlement offers (formally Joint Motion offers ) through multiple email blasts:
One was sent to at least 31 agent firms on the afternoon of Wednesday June 30th. Another batch was sent to more than 20 firms (some getting a second round) after 5pm on Friday July 9th.
The urgency expressed in each of those offers was underlined by the fact that TCAD provided just five working days to respond.
The deadline for the July 9th batch was Friday July 16, 2021 at 4:45pm—just four days before TCAD ultimately certified the appraisal roll.
That final deadline was crucial because as of July 7th barely 78 percent of values had been resolved, according to a TCAD certification performance chart (see attached).
And the offers were explicit: “The offer(s) as listed in Exhibit A must be accepted or rejected in totality for the entire agency or firm…TCAD will not accept counteroffers.”
Key to success: Joint Orders
Had it not been for these lightning-quick settlements for massive numbers of properties there is no way the ARB could have plowed through the tremendous number of pending formal hearings to get the appraisal roll certified on time, according to the ARB chair.
Through email exchanges, ARB Chair Thomas “Tom” King answered numerous Bulldog queries related to this story. To meet the 90-percent threshold for certifying the appraisal roll, King said, required completing protests for “approximately $284.5 billion” in property values.
Although he was not notified about TCAD’s initiative to reach settlements via those last-minute emails, King said, “I approved approximately $11.2 billion in value” in agreements between July 10, 2021, and July 19, 2021.
The Bulldog asked, “Would on-time certification have been accomplished had you not been able to approve the approximately $11.2 billion in value of (Tax Code) 41.47(f) agreements between July 10th and July 19th?
King replied: “The numbers would not have been reached.”
High stakes negotiations
As for the statement conveyed to agents that TCAD would not accept counteroffers, that turned out to be a bluff, for the agency did indeed consider hundreds.
For example, records obtained through public information requests indicate that Five Stone Tax Advisors replied to TCAD’s settlement offers with more than 900 counteroffers in one batch, and about 112 in another batch. There is no indication of how many of those counteroffers were accepted and Five Stone was unable to compile figures in time for this report.
Five Stone founding partner and CEO John Paul “JP” Krueger emailed TCAD July 14th, stating, “Thank you for your proactive efforts to resolve these remaining protests in an efficient manner that results in accurate appraised values.”
Krueger’s message further stated that Five Stone had already agreed to Topline more than 300 commercial accounts and more than 10,000 residential accounts.
Why did TCAD entertain counteroffers after stating in writing it would not do so?
TCAD Communications Officer Cynthia Martinez answered this way: “TCAD did re-evaluate some initial offers when information was supplied to us that warranted adjustments.”
However, in some emails that conveyed those counteroffers, from Five Stone, for example, contained no justifications. A spreadsheet listing counteroffers for 912 property IDs contained one column with TCAD’s value and another with Five Stone’s recommended value.
In all likelihood, TCAD didn’t enforce its stated “no counteroffers” stance because on-time certification of tax rolls depends on getting the protests settled for at least 90 percent of the total value of all properties that TCAD appraises. The total value of all properties is more than $314 billion, Martinez said.
If these firms had not accepted TCAD’s offered settlements—and instead chose to drag these protests through the formal hearings—clearly TCAD would not have been able to meet the certification deadline.
Here’s how JP Krueger put it: “Five Stone fully supports TCAD’s use of negotiated joint motions to resolve disputed property appraisal values. The Texas Property Code approves of the practice, and it is a constructive way for taxpayers and appraisal districts to timely resolve these disputes.
“Because of the sheer number of protests it would be impossible for TCAD and the ARB to resolve all of them through formal hearings. There simply wouldn’t be enough time. But with negotiated joint motions, we are able to resolve thousands of protests while preserving the taxpayers’ rights to appeal their appraisal value if they are not fully satisfied with the negotiated outcome. In the process, Travis County is able to avoid the time and expense of thousands of ARB hearings that might have prevented the timely certification of the appraisal roll.
“It’s a win-win for taxpayers and our Travis County officials.”
The massive numbers of Joint Motion agreements also helped to compensate for the far fewer than requested number of ARB members.
TCAD had requested a total of 200 ARB members be on board for the 2021 protest season.
District Judge Lora Livingston, who was local administrative judge until September 1st, appointed a total of 104 new members for 2021. In addition, Livingston reappointed 44 members whose two-year terms had expired. Also, 42 members appointed in 2020 were supposed to serve the second year of their terms in 2021. That brought the total to conduct formal protest hearings in 2021 to 190.
TCAD’s director of operations, Leana Mann, complained via email January 26, 2021, that not enough ARB members were appointed. Peg Liedtke, director of Court Management for Travis County Civil Courts, responded by email saying that Judge Livingston had appointed all applicants who were qualified. “The shortage is not due to the appointment process but to the pool of applicants who applied.”
As it turned out, only half those 104 new members appointed actually participated. Fifty-two resigned or were otherwise disqualified even before formal hearings commenced. Attrition from 10 other ARB members appointed in previous years brought the total losses to 62. That left 128 members actually on board. They conducted more than 98,000 formal hearings, according to records obtained through public information requests. (For details, see attached Excel spreadsheet, Resignations and Removals from Travis Appraisal Review Board in 2021.)
Contempt from the TCAD board
One particularly stinging resignation that ARB member Warren Napier sent to Judge Livingston greatly alarmed her. Napier, who had served on the ARB since December 2017, wrote, “My departure is primarily the result of listening to the TCAD Board meetings and realizing the contempt of the TCAD Board members have toward ARB members.
“This level of contempt, like a virus, spread to several of the residential appraisers and I can only express my displeasure by leaving. I have always been treated courteously by yourself and Ms. Liedtke and wish you success in selecting future ARB members who can overlook the attitude of the TCAD.”
The letter so alarmed Judge Livingston that on July 21st she forwarded Napier’s resignation email to the TCAD Board of Directors, Chief Appraiser Crigler, Taxpayer Liaison Martin Wilbanks, ARB Chair King and ARB Secretary Sally Becker.
Livingston’s letter dropped a bombshell announcement: “Additionally, 60 other ARB members have resigned since January 2021, and I find this very disturbing,” Livingston wrote. “Given some of the specific complaints about TCAD, I think it best that I do not make any additional appointments to the Appraisal Review Board until these issues have been considered. I welcome your thoughts on the exodus of ARB members.”
TCAD Board Chair James Valadez responded to Livingston with a lengthy August 13th letter that explained the board’s position but contained gross factual errors. In essence his letter claimed that budget overruns and late certification did not happen during the 2019 protest season under then ARB Chair Betty Thompson.
In fact, based on information supplied by TCAD to the Bulldog’s public information requests, the 2019 appraisal roll was not certified until August 16, 2019—well past the July 20th deadline, although within the extended deadline authorized by the TCAD board. More to the point, the ARB actual costs in 2019 were nearly $1.6 million when the budget was less than $260,000. (For exact figures see chart, By the Numbers: A Dozen Year History of the Travis Appraisal Review Board). In other words, the actual ARB cost in 2019 were five times the amount budgeted.
To see the specific reasons for the drastic ARB attrition, see linked chart, Resignations and Removals from Travis Appraisal Review Board in 2021.
It should be noted that the ARB is a legal entity separate and distinct from TCAD but must depend on TCAD for its funding and administrative support. As indicated in the chart, most cost overruns occurred because TCAD continually underfunded the ARB. For six straight years—2015 through 2021—TCAD budgeted far less each year than the amount of ARB actually cost in the previous year. The under-budgeted figures ranged from a low of $80,185 to a high of $389,900.
Making under-budgeting worse, TCAD has insisted on increasing the requested number of ARB members from 38 in 2015 to 200 in 2021 and 2022.
TCAD in its 2022 budget finally kicked that bad habit of underfunding by budgeting more than $1.6 million for ARB operations.
High turnover in ARB leadership
The ARB has suffered a rapid turnover of people appointed to chair, organize, train and guide members through the process of conducting formal protest hearings in an efficient manner.
The ARB is now headed by its fourth chair since January 2020. The current chair, Tom King, is term-limited and finishing his sixth and final year on the board.
King told the Bulldog he will be succeeded by Craig Phifer, who is currently serving his third year on the ARB.
After leading the ARB for about four years, Betty Thompson was succeeded in January 2020 by William “Bill” Fields. He resigned June 1, 2020, after just five months. His final payment for hours worked was delayed for months until the TCAD board finally approved the expense.
Storey Cordelle was appointed in June 2020 to fill the ARB chair vacancy left by Fields’ resignation. Cordelle lasted nine months. He resigned in March 2021 after enduring unrelenting criticism from TCAD board members in several meetings. The flak was so intense that in the December 2020 board meeting Theresa Bastian, a TCAD member appointed by Austin ISD, 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 against Cordelle centered on costs that exceeded the budget for ARB to complete formal hearings of 2020 protests. The board approved an increase of more than $88,000 but ARB expenses still ran about $15,000 over the amended budget. Cordelle pointed out that he had no input into the budget process.
In reality TCAD set the 2020 ARB budget at $1,201,325—nearly $390,000 less than the ARB actually cost in 2019.
King was appointed ARB chair in April 2021, just as the ARB was about to start holding formal protest hearings. “This is a big challenge,” he said at the time. “To get the work done in time to meet certification deadlines will take a partnership between ARB, the agents representing property owners, and TCAD.”
In a July 22nd email, King wrote, “The hard work of all our members putting in nine- and 10-hour days conducting hearings, working with Tax Agents representing properties in Travis County, and cooperatively working with the Appraisal District to schedule and complete hearings for protested properties with the proper allocation of Appraisal District personnel, all worked to accomplish a task that had not been done in the past several years.”
Even all that hard work by the ARB, however, would not have achieved on-time certification of the appraisal roll had it not been for more than 63,000 settlement agreements.,
This article contains reporting by Daniel Van Oudenaren for coverage of the August 30th TCAD board meeting.
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 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. Contributions made by December 31, 2021, will the TRIPLED by matching national and local partners.
ARB Member Warren Napier’s letter of resignation, June 18, 2021 (1 page)
Lora Livingston’s letter to TCAD board, et al, August 17, 2021 (2 pages)
Senate Bill 2531 effective January 1, 2020 (1 page) SB 2531 Text
Related Bulldog coverage:
TCAD pares back budget hike to 12.5 percent, June 10, 2021
TCAD asking for 24 percent budget jump, May 26, 2021
Appraisal Review Board gets new leader, finally, April 9, 2021
Appraisal Review Board chair resigns, March 18, 2021
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 board still debating 2020 protest process, January 14, 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
TCAD flubs public notice for hearing on Proposed 2020 Budget, August 9, 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