New: Editor Ken Martin reads an audio version of this story.
Bad bets bring dire consequences for Travis County taxing entities, property owners and agents
Maybe Marya Crigler, chief appraiser of the Travis Central Appraisal District (TCAD) needs to check in at Gamblers Anonymous.
Maybe the TCAD Board of Directors needs to check in as well.
Crigler bet big in 2019 when—without consulting either her board or stakeholders—she abruptly changed procedures for protesting property values. She required protests to be filed online and prevented property owners or their agents from meeting face-to-face with staff appraisers, as had been done for many years.
Crigler’s big bet caused colossal losses.
The number of protests filed in 2019 were nearly identical to the number filed in 2018. Yet Appraisal Review Board (ARB) hearings shot up from 23,000 in 2018 to 90,000 in 2019. ARB costs jumped from a quarter million dollars in 2018 to $2 million in 2019. Complaints went through the roof.
Even after all that she personally hit the jackpot. The TCAD board richly rewarded her with a 5 percent pay raise (to $220,000) and tossed in an $11,000 cash bonus.
In effect the board members—except for one who voted against the pay measure—ignored her disastrous 2019 performance and bet she would reward their blind faith in 2020.
Another big bet, another loss
What the board didn’t know at the time is that Crigler had obtained back-door access to pirated home sales data. That data was owned and copyrighted by the Austin Board of Realtors (ABoR).
TCAD executed contracts with CoreLogic Solutions LLC February 12, 2018, and March 26, 2018, agreeing to pay a total of $69,000 for an extensive array of MLS data for 2017. (Neither contract exceeded the chief appraiser’s authority to spend more than $50,000 without going to the TCAD board for approval.)
Crigler knew TCAD was receiving stolen goods. She said as much April 2, 2019, when she testified in a hearing on HB 1036 before the Texas Legislature’s Business and Industry Committee. She came to the committee hearing to support the bill’s proposed mandatory price disclosure on all real estate sales.
“We have never had access to MLS data,” Crigler told lawmakers. “Our Board of Realtors does not give that access to our appraisal district.”
In reality her testimony backfired because, in answering questions, she admitted she was getting MLS data through a third-party vendor.
Committee Chair Trey Martinez Fischer asked, “Are there any third parties that have access to MLS data that you might be able to contract with?”
“Yes,” Crigler replied, “and we pay for it and it can be pretty expensive for us to get other access to the data.”
This no doubt alerted ABoR. One of those who heard her speak and testified against the legislation was Tray Bates, the 2019 chairman of the Texas Realtors Association.
Less than a month later, vendor CoreLogic Solutions notified TCAD April 29, 2019, the data would no longer be provided.
Then on May 8, 2019, ABoR’s attorney notified Crigler, “TCAD must cease and desist authorized use of, and attempting to gain, unauthorized access to, the ACTRIS (Austin/Central Texas Information Systems) database.”
“ACTRIS does not license the ACTRIS database for establishing property values for tax purposes, nor does ACTRIS grant licenses to any participant, subscriber, or third party to sublease the ACTRIS Database for establishing property values for tax purposes.”
Crigler bet TCAD could rely on getting surreptitious access to MLS data and in doing so racked up another big loss with far-reaching consequences.
How else to get data?
In Tax Years 2012 through 2019 TCAD obtained an average of 98 percent of sales data, according to information supplied to the TCAD board for its February 19, 2020, meeting. The sources included title companies, financial institutions, leasing agencies, property managers, real estate brokers and agencies, government and private fee appraisers, attorneys, appraisal organizations, and multiple listing services. TCAD also harvested sales data from information that property owners submitted when protesting valuations.
But Crigler apparently failed to hedge her bets by continuing to gather home sales data through these traditional means. After access was cut off Crigler waited 10 months to inform school districts that residential property appraisals would not be updated in 2020, because TCAD was able to capture sales data on just 15 percent of the 19,163 residential sales in 2019.
As reported by The Austin Bulldog February 19, 2020, Eanes ISD Superintendent Tom Leonard represented eight school districts when he told the TCAD Board of Directors that school leaders were shocked when the chief appraiser told them on February 12 that residential properties would not be reappraised in 2020.
“The impact on Travis County local entities will vary but it will be measurable on all and, for the school districts, will ultimately adversely affect students, teachers and staff,” Leonard said.
Seeking redress from vendor
Now the chief appraiser seeks to depose CoreLogic. TCAD requested a hearing to get court approval for discovery against the vendor that sold TCAD the pirated data, stating, “TCAD planned its future appraisal processes around the fulfillment of that contract.”
“As we continue to explore solutions to obtaining the market data we need to accurately appraise properties in Travis County, we are looking at the power of the court system to help,” Crigler’s statement said. “We filed a petition with the District Courts of Travis County asking the court to authorize us to depose CoreLogic regarding their contract with ABoR. In addition, we are asking the court to compel CoreLogic to provide us with certain documents regarding that contract.”
It appears that TCAD’s legal strategy is an attempt at an end run to obtain ABoR’s proprietary MLS data.
ABoR, through its public relations representative, released the following statement regarding TCAD’s petition to depose CoreLogic: “The Austin Board of Realtors does not comment on potential or pending litigation.”
Austin attorney Bill Aleshire, a former Travis County tax assessor-collector and Travis County judge, has been criticizing TCAD, the chief appraiser, and its board of directors for many months.
Commenting on TCAD’s request to depose CoreLogic, he said, “If TCAD is claiming it was surprised to learn that it could not obtain and use MLS sales information for tax appraisals—despite decades of MLS refusing to let TCAD have the data for that purpose—it amounts to willful ignorance.”
“So why didn’t TCAD perform due diligence to verify that CoreLogic could provide MLS data with agreement to be used for tax purposes? Willful ignorance—until they got caught.”
(Disclosure: Aleshire represented The Austin Bulldog in two open records lawsuits in 2011 and these days represents the Bulldog in public information requests.)
Ploy to get ABoR concession?
The Austin Monitor reported March 13 that Crigler briefed the Travis County Commissioners Court March 10 concerning ABoR’s refusal to allow use of MLS data.
That report indicated the Commissioners Court appeared to accept Crigler’s assertion that residential reappraisals could not be accomplished this year without access to ABoR’s proprietary information.
County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said ABoR did not recognize the full implications of preventing access to this information, the Monitor reported.
But ABoR does indeed recognize how the lack of MLS data affects the appraisal process. As reported by The Austin Bulldog February 27, 2020, the organization met with Chief Appraiser Crigler and offered to provide aggregate data by zip code. Crigler stated that was not adequate for updating residential appraisals.
After that meeting the ABoR issued a statement: “Texas is a non-disclosure state. Appraisal districts across Texas have a state mandate to set property values each year. To the best of our knowledge, every other appraisal district is conducting residential valuations this year.”
Other appraisal districts function without MLS
Bexar Central Appraisal District, which also has no access to MLS data, issued a statement from Chief Appraiser Michael Amezquita that it had been able to collect sales prices for 30 percent to 35 percent of deed transactions that occur annually in that county.
Williamson County Chief Appraiser Alvin Lankford told The Austin Bulldog in a March 2, 2020, email that WCAD has been able to get valid sales information “on approximately 40 percent to 45 percent of all deed transactions.”
In other words, Bexar and Williamson CADs—neither of which have had access to MLS data—are getting two to three times the sales information that TCAD obtained.
Meanwhile, TCAD is on a long losing streak and stuck with the consequences of bad bets.
Crigler’s best bet?
Maybe the smartest bet Crigler made was that she never hired or even recruited for a deputy chief appraiser. The job has been vacant since Lonnie Wayne Hendry Jr. resigned in June 2019, just as The Austin Bulldog’s investigation was about to expose his misconduct.
So even if the TCAD board finally gets fed up and wants to fire Crigler, no one is readily available to step in and start repairing the damage she’s done.
Links to related material:
Audio version of this story read by Editor Ken Martin
Other Bulldog coverage of TCAD:
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
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
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
Are Austin’s Property Taxes Fair and Equitable? July 30, 2010
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].
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