By every measure TCAD is having a bad year

0
1303
Photo of Marya Crigler

TCAD board to discuss possible changes at December 18 meeting

If the chief appraiser wanted to jack up costs, create delays, and reduce customer satisfaction with the property valuation system she would have a hard time finding a more bedeviling way than cutting off communication between property owners and the people on her staff who decide what their property is worth.

But that’s what she did for the 2019 protest season. Marya Crigler’s decision to deny property owners (or their agents) face-to-face meetings with Travis Central Appraisal District (TCAD) staff appraisers created massive problems this year. Some of those problems are reflected in the accompanying chart, “TCAD Key Performance Indicators.”

As The Austin Bulldog reported November 12, no other major metro appraisal district in Texas eliminated face-to-face opportunities to resolve valuation disputes, a standard operating procedure recommended by the International Association of Assessing Officers.

With little or no discussion with her board of directors and none whatsoever with stakeholders, Crigler slammed the office doors closed and barred property owners or agents from seeing staff appraisers, leaving them no choice but to suffer the consequences of her rash decision.

Allowing informal protests to be lodged only through TCAD’s online portal resulted in a massive increase in the number of formal hearings before Appraisal Review Board panels and a big jump in the number of cases now proceeding to arbitration and litigation.

The question now is whether the board of directors will order Crigler to go back to the time-tested procedure of allowing property owners or their agents to sit down with appraisal staff, exchange evidence, and see if they can reach agreement on a property value.

TCAD’s board of directors has called for a December 13 work session to discuss whether Crigler should relent and allow face-to-face meetings next year. The meeting was to start at 10:30am, preceding the 11:30am regular board meeting.

Chief appraiser’s pay up for discussion

Coincidentally the TCAD board is also scheduled to review Crigler’s performance at the December 18 meeting. The board will decide whether to renew her contract and whether she gets additional compensation.

Her employment agreement requires that her annual performance reviews “shall be in writing and in accordance with criteria adopted by the Board with the input of Employee.”

But that’s not how things actually work.

TCAD’s response to The Austin Bulldog’s public information request for copies of her performance reviews indicated it had “no responsive information.” Nor did TCAD provide the criteria by which Crigler’s performance is to be evaluated.

Instead, Crigler’s performance evaluations each year have been given in closed-door executive sessions. And from the looks of her pay increases over the eight years of heading the organization, most years the board has been pleased enough to grant sizeable pay raises and, for the past two years, tossed in cash bonuses as well. (See chart, “Chief Appraiser Marya Crigler’s Pay”.)

TCAD litigation all in one basket

As reflected in the Key Performance Indicators chart, the number of lawsuits filed against TCAD this year to challenge the value assigned by the Appraisal Review Board has already climbed significantly above the number of suits filed in 2018—and the litigation season has hardly begun.

In fact the number of lawsuits challenging the ARB valuation decisions is climbing daily, based on The Austin Bulldog’s monitoring of the Travis County District Clerk’s Online Case Information website.

Currently there are 1,932 cases pending against TCAD. In all but a handful of those cases TCAD is represented by a single law firm that TCAD hired in January 2015. Evertson & Sanchez consists of attorneys Karen Evertson and Mary Sanchez.

Records obtained through a public information request show that from April 2017 through March 2019 Evertson & Sanchez had billed TCAD for $1,015,991.

But Evertson & Sanchez also has other clients. The firm contracted to provide legal services to the Bexar Appraisal District in June 2013. According to Bexar Appraisal District’s response to a public information request, as of September 21, 2019, Evertson & Sanchez had 51 Bexar cases pending. Some of those cases included two additional attorneys working with the firm, Charles Wise & Morgan Thornton.

Evertson & Sanchez also executed an agreement in November 2018 to provide legal services to the Comal Appraisal Review Board, but no invoices were located in response to The Austin Bulldog’s public information request.

Karen Evertson

In a phone interview November 27, asked how can a small law firm keep up with so many TCAD cases, Evertson replied, “I don’t believe it’s appropriate for attorneys to comment on active litigation,” adding, “We work very hard.”

Told that plaintiff attorneys interviewed for this story said Evertson & Sanchez was overworked and could not keep up with the caseload, Evertson replied, “I don’t think it’s appropriate for attorneys to comment on active litigation. Ethical rules control attorneys conduct.”

Plaintiff attorney Nassour highly critical

Jason Nassour

When it comes to attorneys filing litigation against TCAD over valuation disputes, Jason Nassour of Austin-based Keel & Nassour leads the pack, as illustrated in the accompanying chart, “Lawyers v Travis Central Appraisal District,” which lists the Top 5.

Nassour currently has 292 cases pending against TCAD, and is filing new ones nearly every day.

Representing commercial property owners before ARB panels is a service generally provided by companies employing property tax agents. But Nassour said he personally represents his clients, mostly owners of commercial properties, in formal ARB hearings. “I had an affidavit for 670 cases,” he said, and processed about 40 a day. “I do about a 10-minute presentation.”

Nassour said that in March he sent Evertson & Sanchez a settlement sheet and gave them the materials for about 50 properties and he and never got a response.

When Evertson was asked to respond to that claim, she said, “I don’t know how else to say this, in my opinion it’s not appropriate for an attorney to comment on active litigation.”

As to the ever-increasing volume of lawsuits against TCAD, Nassour said, “I think people are really getting fed up. It’s far worse now than it’s ever been.”

He noted there are three ways to value property for tax purposes:

Income approach—How much money does the property make?

Sales comparison method—How much did the property sell for?

Cost approach—How much would it cost to rebuild the property?

“Most lawsuits are filed on income-based properties,” Nassour said. “Yet when I show them the income and the number is much lower (than TCAD’s valuation), they don’t care.”

What does Nassour think of TCAD eliminating the informal face-to-face meetings this year?

“For me, it was really dumb on their part not to do informal hearings. It’s a lot of work for the district but it’s a real opportunity to resolve these matters. If the district thinks it’s worth $10 and I think it’s worth $4, maybe we can negotiate and agree on $6 or $7. But when we go to hearings it’s all or nothing. There’s no justice in the long run. It costs a lot of money to do that.”

Nassour said Crigler appeared at a town hall meeting with Senator Kirk Watson (D-Austin). “She said the best evidence is to show us sales info.”

“So I go show them a copy of a settlement statement and they say ‘I don’t give a shit,’ a statement he attributed to Lonnie Hendry, the former deputy chief appraiser who abruptly resigned in July just as The Austin Bulldog’s investigation was concluding.

“That’s why they are getting sued on a daily basis.”

 Plaintiff attorney Michel dissatisfied

Lorri Michel

Attorney Lorri Michel of Austin-based Michel Gray & Rogers is also critical of the way TCAD’s attorneys handle litigation. She currently has 73 cases pending against the appraisal district.

“You have to have a significant amount of value difference in order to justify the cost of litigation,” Michel said. “Typically where you have those big differences will be with commercial properties.”

As previously reported by The Austin Bulldog, Michel won two major lawsuits against TCAD this year.

She represented Texas Disposal Systems Landfill Inc. in litigation that cost taxpayers an estimated $1 million. That win lowered the value of 345 acres of landfill and forced a tax refund with interest totaling some $800,000 the company paid in taxes for tax years 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2013.

Michel also represented Catherine Tower LLC, owner of a 15-story apartment building at 210 Barton Springs Road in two lawsuits covering valuations in 2016, 2017, and 2018. That settlement cost taxpayers some $850,000. Yet just 11 days after reaching agreement that set the 2018 valuation at $122.5 million, TCAD issued a 2019 assessment of $144.2 million for the property. And when Michel got the ARB to lower the 2019 value to $132.3 million, TCAD filed suit to challenge the ARB decision.

She said that for challenging valuations of residential properties, it’s cheaper, quicker and easier to ask for binding arbitration, but adds there are problems. “It’s not as thorough as litigation. There’s one arbitrator (hearing your case) and you can do nothing if you don’t agree with the arbitrator’s decision.”

She said there would be even more litigation if Texas lawmakers had not increased the threshold to allow binding arbitration for properties valued up to $5 million in the 2017 legislative session.

So why is the number of lawsuits challenging TCAD continuing to climb year after year?

“From my perspective they are becoming more and more unreasonable about the values they’re assigning and refusing to sit down and discuss the issues that are affecting the values. Pretty much it’s a ‘my way or the highway’ approach,” she said.

The result is, “You will get bogged down with tens of thousands of ARB hearings and then bogged down in more litigation.”

“The (property appraisal) system is designed to allow both sides to sit down and reach agreement on values sooner rather than later. Later ends up costing taxpayers a lot of money. It’s a very costly way to run an appraisal district.

“I say this as someone benefitting from it. I earn a lot of money, but I’m also a taxpayer in this county. As a matter of public policy, this is not the way appraisal districts are supposed to operate. …It places a burden on the judicial system as well,” Michel said.

“It’s not just one problem, it’s multiple problems that are disadvantaging the taxpayers of Travis County, from cancellation of informal hearings, getting value notices out late, being late certifying tax rolls, and increasing the budget by millions.

“There’s been a series this year of management failures. The board of directors needs to address these problems with the chief appraiser and hold her accountable. Next in line are the local jurisdictions, and they don’t seem to be holding their appointees to TCAD accountable.

“The board of directors should be looking at these issues and reining in an out-of-control chief appraiser. She’s completely forgotten she works for taxpayers.”

TCAD board members are appointed by the taxing entities served by the district. The City of Austin and Travis County Commissioners Court each appoint two members. Austin ISD appoints two and with the City of Austin jointly appoints a third. The taxing entities of East Travis County and West Travis County each appoint one member. The Travis County Tax Assessor-Collector is a permanent board member.

As for recently hiring a communications director but not a deputy chief appraiser or information technology director, Michel said, “No communications officer will help her get better press if she continues making the decisions she’s been making.”

“It all comes back to Exhibit A: the board of directors is not doing its job. The appraisal district has run completely amok.” Michel said. “I hope some board members are starting to wake up. There seems to be the beginning of awareness there.

“I make a nice sum of money with the appraisal district being the disaster that it is, but it’s not right. It’s not the way it’s supposed to be.”

A board member’s position

Anthony Nguyen

Anthony Nguyen was the only TCAD board member to respond to The Austin Bulldog’s emailed request for comment about the Key Performance Indicators included in this story. (All board members were contacted except Eleanor Powell, who does not use email.)

Nguyen’s email response states, “Thanks for highlighting these numbers. Your numbers do match my general recollections from past board meetings.

“The increase in the numbers of ARB hearings and cost to facilitate the ARB hearings are a concern. This year’s performance was affected by some large changes to our operations. The Board will be addressing the root cause of these concerns in our December meeting. My hope is we can perform better in the coming years.”

Links:

Chief Appraiser Marya Crigler’s Employment Agreement and amendments (20 pages)

Evertson & Sanchez three agreements with Bexar Appraisal District (14 pages)

Evertson & Sanchez agreement with Comal Appraisal Review Board (5 pages)

Evertson & Sanchez agreement with Travis Central Appraisal District (5 pages)

Related Bulldog coverage:

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 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

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.

An alphabetic list of donors who have contributed to The Austin Bulldog since the organization was formed in 2009 and the cumulative amount each person has given through December 31, 2018, are listed on the Contribute page. 

Congratulations. It looks like you’re the type of person who reads to the end of articles. Now that you’re informed on this topic we want your feedback. We want to add your knowledge to amplify, clarify or criticize what you’ve read. And we definitely want to correct the record if we’ve gotten something wrong.