COVID-19 plans for appraisal review board hearings

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TCAD's new facility at 850 E. Anderson Lane is not expected to be ready for ARB hearings before June 22.

There’s been a high demand for in-person formal hearings and tax rolls won’t be certified in time unless they’re held

The Travis Central Appraisal District (TCAD) provides administrative and budgetary support for the Travis Appraisal Review Board (ARB). The two separate entities are collaborating to plan how formal protest hearings may be conducted safely during a pandemic while still complying with state statutes.

A total of 118,000 property owners (or their agents) filed protests of property values that TCAD assigned this year. That’s more than 25,000 fewer protests that were filed in both 2018 and 2019. A key factor in reducing the number of protests this year is that TCAD did not reappraise residential properties in 2020.

Agents filed all but 14,000 of the 118,000 protests TCAD received this year. (See chart.)

TCAD permitted value protests to be filed by one of three methods: (1) through its online portal, (2) by U.S mail, or (3) by depositing the paperwork in a drop box located in front of its offices.

TCAD planned to allow informal protests to be handled through face-to-face meetings with staff appraisers. That plan was scuttled due to the dangers imposed by COVID-19. So informal protest discussions with staff appraisers could be conducted only by telephone. Callers could get in line, online, to talk with an appraiser and were limited to discussing no more than five properties per call.

Because of policy changes imposed by the TCAD board of directors, staff appraisers were not allowed to make decisions about possible reductions in values at the time of the calls. Instead, the appraiser’s value recommendation had to be reviewed by a manager and then conveyed to the protester up to a week later. While that system may have been adequate for individual property owners handling their own protests, it was unworkable for agents handling high volumes of protests on behalf of their clients.

Pandemic planning, building not ready

Marya Crigler

TCAD Chief Appraiser Marya Crigler briefed the TCAD board of directors at last Friday’s board meeting, conducted via Zoom, about plans for ARB hearings.

Currently the plans call for conducting most of the ARB hearings at TCAD’s new facility still under construction at 850 E. Anderson Lane. Crigler said that some of the ARB hearings may be held at TCAD’s current offices at 8314 Cross Park Drive or even, as a last resort, at the Travis County Exposition Center at 7311 Decker Lane.

“We hope the new building will be ready by June 22 to do formal hearings at that location,” Crigler said.

She attributed the construction delays to slow delivery of equipment including partitions, the need for construction crews to practice social distancing, and problems getting required inspections completed by the City of Austin. At the May 11, 2020, board meeting she said that they were waiting for a panel needed for the building’s electrical service.

Steps are being taken to protect the health of all participants in ARB hearings, including ARB members (many of whom are seniors), TCAD support staff, property owners, and agents. Instead of operating 40 panels at a time in the facility as planned, that number will be reduced to 18 to 20 to permit social distancing.

“People won’t be allowed in the building without an appointment,” Crigler said. All who enter must wear a mask, have their temperature checked at the door, and answer questions related to their health and possible exposure to COVID-19. TCAD will have some masks on hand but requests that participants bring their own.

“We’re going to do our very best to make it as safe as possible. We’re looking at how other offices are operating so we can follow best practices,” Crigler said. “The scope of the pandemic changes weekly and if changes are needed in our operation we will make them.”

The TCAD website is being updated with information about how TCAD is operating, she said. “We post updates for property owners to see current procedures for the appraisal district.”

ARB cannot demand hearings by telephone

The property owner has the right to request a formal protest hearing in-person and not participate telephonically. That right was reinforced by Attorney General Ken Paxton’s Opinion No. KP-0307. The opinion states the law requires formal protest hearings to be conducted in-person if the property owner or agent requests it.

TCAD received only 400 requests for ARB hearings to be conducted by telephone. That unexpected low volume undercut TCAD’s plans and negated the need for the upgraded telephone system approved by the TCAD board May 11, 2020. The board unanimously approved a $42,443 contract for software and professional services to be provided by vendor Converge One.

Agents view telephonic ARB hearings as disadvantageous to their clients’ interests.

David Bawcom

Texas Protax filed an estimated 42,000 protests on behalf of property owners. Fewer than 3,300 of those were efiled through TCAD’s online portal, said David Bawcom, director of appeals for the company. The remainder of Protax protests were filed on paper.

Under changes to the Texas Tax Code enacted by Senate Bill 2, agents are permitted to file protests for up to 20 properties on one submission. But Protax found that in doing so through TCAD’s portal, the screen that can be printed to confirm receipt did not list all properties in the batch. Meaning Protax would have no proof that requests were filed for every property. Not having such proof would result in not being able to schedule a formal ARB protest hearing.

Debra Bawcom

“Typically only 10 or so parcels would show up on the print screen,” said Debra Bawcom, CEO and senior property tax consultant for Texas Protax.

As a result, the company filed most of its protests on paper via U.S. mail, return receipt requested. Tax agents for the company completed an affidavit for each batch as well.

“We filed 1,876 batch requests,” Debra Bawcom said. At three pages per batch that’s 5,628 pages of paper. “However, we also sent evidence for each batch that was also three pages, for a total of 11,256 pages of information.”

At 500 pieces of paper per ream, that’s more than 22 reams of paper prepared in batches and sent through the mail to reach TCAD offices located at 8314 Cross Park Drive, just across the side street from Protax offices at 8322 Cross Park Drive.

The Austin Bulldog requested a response and TCAD Communications Officer Cynthia Martinez provided this statement via email, to be attributed to Chief Appraiser Crigler: “It is disappointing to hear about these concerns for the first time, two weeks after the protest deadline. No other property tax consultant agency had issues using our online portal to file their protests or communicating with us to address the issues that have been raised. If Texas Protax had approached us earlier, we would have provided them with clarification on how to address their concerns electronically, as every other agency was able to do. The paper protests they submitted have been accepted and processed. We look forward to working with agents and property owners throughout the rest of the protest season.​​”

Debra Bawcom told The Austin Bulldog, “I really don’t think other agents face the same issues we have faced with the portal because their portfolios are smaller or they did not want to request the schedule 20 options.”

David Bawcom estimated there may be as many as 200 companies that file protests with TCAD on behalf of property owners. In 2019, he said, Texas Protax filed fully half of the 143,000 appeals.

In essence, TCAD’s online portal works well enough for owners and agents filing relatively few protests. It does not accommodate the massive volume handled by Texas Protax.

Claims the larger problem is communication

Debra Bawcom addressed TCAD’s board of directors at last Friday’s meeting about the agency’s process for handling protests. The Austin Bulldog requested TCAD’s response to each of her remarks.

She said that TCAD displayed a “continued lack of communication to the agents and to the public about processes this year.”

She contrasted TCAD’s procedures with appraisal districts in Harris and Williamson counties.

She said Texas Protax had collaborated with Williamson’s director of appraisals and chief appraiser on several occasions, both in person via zoom and on the telephone, to discuss how to get through the process quickly and meet certification deadlines. “We’re texting, we’re calling, we’re communicating about the process.”

“Unfortunately we’re not had that opportunity in Travis County,” she said.

Harris County’s appraisal district over a three-month period sent seven emails to agents to describe how they are going to conduct the protest process this year, she said.

“Yet we’ve only received one letter from the Travis Central Appraisal District saying we’re going to have telephone hearings but we’re not going to make a decision (about values) at the time of the hearings.”

Cynthia Martinez

Communications Officer Martinez responded with a statement: “TCAD has communicated consistently with all agents throughout this process, including posting information on our website for agents and the public to view. Our staff was happy to address any questions or issues brought to us during this time.”

Finally, Debra Bawcom said, “Harris County has had over 78,000 informal hearings already this year and Travis County has had some 3,400. I think that speaks volumes about the lack of communication that we are concerned about.”

Texas Protax bypassed the TCAD’s informal hearing process as it was not practical to discuss only five cases at a time for a company filing tens of thousands of protests.

Martinez said, “We are disappointed that Texas Protax chose not to participate in that part of the process.”

Debra Bawcom said, “The only way the protest process can be efficient is if we all agree to work together collaboratively. The hostile nature of the appraisal district’s lack of communication and continued attempts to be more and more closed off to the public (even before COVID) is alarming and not in line with TCAD’s mission statement or the best interest of the public.”

Williamson CAD welcomed emailed protests

Alvin Lankford

Alvin Lankford, chief appraiser of WCAD, responded to The Austin Bulldog’s questions via email.

He said WCAD received 51,280 protests this year, of which 10,850 were filed online, and almost 6,900 were received in the mail room. A total of 28,509—56 percent of protests—were filed by agents, significantly lower than the 88 percent that agents filed with TCAD.

“Very few agents utilize our online protest system,” Lankford said. “They prefer to use email since they can protest many accounts at once. TCAD and WCAD are not on the same system for online protests.”

“Agents were able to file protests online through our website but usually they file with an email and attach a list of properties, which is actually much easier. The online process is designed for one property at a time and not conducive for agents that sometimes file thousands of appeals,” Lankford said.

TCAD does not allow protests to be filed via email.

New ARB chair appointed

As we reported January 14, 2020, William “Bill” Fields was appointed to chair the ARB this year. It is his sixth year on the ARB and his first to lead the organization. Instead, in May he submitted his letter of resignation as chair effective June 1, although he will remain on the ARB.

Storey Bonner Cordelle

District Judge Tim Sulak, who also serves as the local administrative judge, appointed Storey Bonner Cordelle III as the new chair, effective June 1, 2020. This is his fourth year on the ARB, Cordelle told The Austin Bulldog.

“We are looking at over 110,000 hearing requests, according to last week’s TCAD board agenda,” Cordelle said. “The actual number can vary greatly” he added, due to no-shows, withdrawals, and settlements.

That’s 20,000 more ARB hearings than were held in 2019, even though far fewer protests were filed in 2020. In large part this outcome is a result of Texas Protax’s decision to bypass TCAD’s informal protest process and go straight to the ARB for formal hearings.

The ARB consists of 150 members appointed by the local administrative judge to conduct formal hearings on value protests filed by Travis County property owners or their agents. The ARB is an independent body that is not managed by TCAD,  although TCAD provides administrative support for its hearings.

Fields addressed the TCAD board of directors at its May 11, 2020, meeting to answer questions about requests for reimbursement of ARB members for “expenditures not related to conducting hearings,” Chief Appraiser Crigler told the board.

Following a 16-minute board discussion of the matter, the board voted to table action on the request until the next meeting, and asked Fields to supply more evidence to support the request.

Thereafter Fields submitted his resignation.

This story was updated at 10:49am Wednesday June 3, 2020, to include a link to District Judge Tim Sulak’s acceptance of William “Bill” Fields letter of resignation as ARB chair and appointment of Bonner Cordelle as the new chair.

Links to related material:

Attorney General Ken Paxton’s Opinion No. KP-0307, May 8, 2020 (7 pages)

District Judge Tim Sulak’s correspondence accepting resignation of William “Bill” Fields as ARB chair and appointing Bonner Cordelle as the new chair, May 24, 2020 (6 pages)

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.

Email [email protected].

Other Bulldog coverage of TCAD:

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