First-ever opportunity to elect appraisal board members

The board oversees administration of the district’s $30 million budget and the appraisal process that sets the value of all real estate in Travis County, publishes notices of appraised values, and processes informal protests

HomeElectionsFirst-ever opportunity to elect appraisal board members

Right now local voters are of course focused on the Super Tuesday primary elections of March 5th, but another election two months later should be of interest to all Travis County property owners.

On May 4th Travis County voters have a million-dollar opportunity to pick three members to serve on the board of Travis Central Appraisal District. ($1 million is the budgeted cost of the election.)

This will be the first time since appraisal districts were created by legislation passed in 1979 that the citizens of Travis County will be able to directly elect some of the voting members who oversee the appraisal district’s administration. Up till now, all members of the board have been appointed by the taxing entities served by the appraisal district.

Paul Bettencourt

The election mandate is just one aspect of the far-reaching legislation authored by Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) and signed into law July 22, 2023, by Governor Greg Abbott.

The bill amended Chapter 6 of the Tax Code, relating to Local Administration, to require that an appraisal district board of directors in a county with a population of 75,000 or more be made up of five directors appointed by the taxing units that participate in the district, three directors elected by the voters in the county, and the county assessor­-collector as an ex-officio director. All members serve as unpaid volunteers.

Those elected May 4th (or in a May 28th runoff) will take office July 1st and serve terms expiring December 31, 2026. An election is to be held in November 2026 for these three board seats, with electees sworn in January 1, 2027, for four-year terms.

Board elections are nonpartisan, but as anyone familiar with Travis County politics is well aware, party preferences usually play a significant role in election outcomes. Which is why the Bulldog is reporting the voting histories of these candidates to assist voters in understanding their options.

Seven men (and no women) have filed for a place on the ballot. Each candidate chose the place in which he is running. The places are elected at-large to represent the whole county, and not geographic districts.

Eighteen Travis County government agencies will have measures on the May 4th ballot but the ballot language has not yet been confirmed.

Place 1 candidates

Jett Hanna (left) and Don Zimmerman

Jett Lowell Hanna, 64, is an attorney who earned his law degree from the University of Texas at Austin in 1983. At the end of 2021, after 34 years of service, he retired as senior vice president of loss prevention for the Texas Lawyers’ Insurance Exchange.

Hanna told the Bulldog he is active in a number of unpaid volunteer activities. He serves on the nine-member Texas Committee on Professional Ethics appointed by the Texas Supreme Court. He volunteers at the Travis County Correctional Complex in Del Valle to facilitate mediation with prisoners. And he works with amateur radio operators to help hospitals with emergency communications.

Hanna said he wants to serve on the TCAD board “to make sure there are fair appraisals done in systematic manner and laws are followed. We need accountable leadership by making sure we hire and assess the chief appraiser the right way.”

In addition, he said, “We’ve got to work on customer service for both taxpayers and the agents who represent property owners.”

Hanna advocates changing the law to allow teachers to serve on the Appraisal Review Board (ARB). He noted that teachers are off in the summer and that’s when the bulk of the ARB’s hearings are conducted. He said that Governor Abbott vetoed legislation that would have allowed teachers to serve on the ARB.

Travis County voter registration records indicate that Hanna first voted in Travis County in 1990, which is the earliest date available in digital records. Over that span of time he has voted in only Democratic primaries.

Donald Shelley “Don” Zimmerman, 63, is the founder of the Travis County Taxpayers Union and currently serves as its executive director.

He has a long history of running for elective office. He started with an Austin Municipal Utility District, where he served as board president.

In the 2014 election that implemented 10 geographic City Council districts, he was elected to represent District 6. He drew a two-year term and was defeated in his 2016 reelection bid.

In March 2020 Zimmerman was a candidate in the Republican Primary for District 47 state representative, placing third in a four-person field. Four months later in 2020, he was on the ballot in the special general election to fill a vacancy in Senate District 14. He placed third in a six-person field.

In 2022 Zimmerman ran against incumbent Round Rock ISD Trustee Tiffanie Harrison. He was part of a slate of five conservative candidates who wanted to take over the school board. All of them were defeated.

The Bulldog has published numerous stories about Zimmerman, including one about the defamation lawsuit he filed against this publication for coverage of his 2014 council candidacy. He threatened to sue the Bulldog again during his candidacy for the Round Rock ISD Board of Trustees in 2022.

Travis County voter registration records indicate that Zimmerman first voted in Travis County in November 2001, including in only Republican primaries.

Zimmerman did not respond to voice and text messages requesting an interview about his candidacy for the TCAD board of directors.

Place 2

Left to right, Matt Mackowiak, Jonathan Patschke, and Daniel Wang

Matthew Lehman Mackowiak, 44, is chair of the Travis County Republican Party and president of the Potomac Strategy Group.

In addition, he is cofounder of Save Austin Now, which describes itself as a nonpartisan citizen’s group dedicated to Austin’s quality of life. The group has been vocal and active in political campaigns addressing issues of policing and homelessness.

“I think it’s a very good thing to require elected members on the appraisal board,” he told the Bulldog. “That adds a check and balance.”

“I want to take advantage of the opportunity to be of service, to ensure TCAD is operating as fairly, transparently, and ethically as possible. That’s something all taxpayers should want.”

“I’m not running to shake things up or fire anyone,” Mackowiak said. “I want to understand how TCAD operates, learn its procedures, and give taxpayers information on how valuations occur. I want to be a taxpayer advocate.

“I’m not anti-government, but people in Austin are really concerned about the massive and unsustainable increases in property taxes. The legislature took some steps to address that problem with the 3.5 percent rollback requirement,” he said, referring to the maximum increase a taxing entity can levy without triggering a requirement for voter approval.

“It is increasingly clear that average people cannot afford to live here. If we’re not careful, Austin will become a playground for the rich, where teachers and nurses have to live outside the city to afford a home. There is a lot of pressure on counties but I think it’s a very good thing if we have three people on the board who view themselves as taxpayer advocates.”

Travis County voter history records indicate that Mackowiak cast his first vote in 2012 and in primaries always voted Republican. He said he had lived in Austin since 1984 except for nine years that he lived in Washington, D.C.

Jonathan Craig Patschke, 44, is listed as treasurer of the Travis County Libertarian Party, according to its website.

His LinkedIn page states that he is a “distributed/embedded software developer” and 2001 graduate of Rice University with a degree in computer science. He declined to name the company for which he works.

“I see this as a great opportunity for public oversight of a government agency with which homeowners have direct interaction,” Patschke said, in an emailed response to questions.

“Prior to filing to be on the ballot, I’d heard that no one else had done so and it seemed a shame that no one else was willing to put in the effort for a position that might make a small difference for all of us in Travis County. Through the limited scope of the board position I hope to improve the fairness and efficiency of the appraisal process.”

“Property appraisals in Texas face an operational challenge in that the actual sale prices of properties are offered to taxing units on a purely voluntary basis. Most sales are not reported accurately, if at all. This means the appraisal district must rely heavily on the accepted values of comparable properties.

“In the case of cities like Austin, there are high-value properties for which relatively few comparable examples exist, and this has prompted a cottage industry of attorneys who perform the very valuable service of getting an individual taxpayer’s property valuation lowered. That this works means that either (1) appraised property values are incorrect, or (2) the ARB is willing to make adjustments which should not apply.

“In either case, the public is ill-served because somebody is paying taxes that would be more fairly levied on someone else,” Patschke said.

Travis County voter registration records indicate that Patschke first voted in Travis County in 2016, but never in a Democrat or Republican primary.

Shenghao “Daniel” Wang, 29, is an attorney with Eversheds Sutherland, a “global top 10 law practice,” according to the firm’s website.

His biographical sketch on the site says he is special counsel to the firm’s Energy Practice Group, focusing on the electric energy market in Texas, and earned his law degree from Harvard.

Wang said in a speech at the state capitol about a year ago that he came to this country from China at age one. He told the Bulldog he is a naturalized citizen. He was addressing people at a rally as part of the Anti-Racism Against Asian Project. That group opposed Senate Bill 147, which would have barred property sales to citizens of North Korea, China, Russia and Iran. The problem with the bill was that it made no exception for green card holders and others in this country legally, he said. That was viewed as a violation of the 14th Amendment to bar discrimination on the basis of race and national origin. The bill was ultimately defeated, he said.

“A core part of government is to make sure that property appraisals are fair and efficient,” Wang told the Bulldog. “If we don’t do that job right it affects the ability of local government agencies to plan their budgets and operate efficiently. If they’re not able to forecast their revenue it’s hard for them to offer stability.”

“I just want to make sure the board operates efficiently and fairly, treats taxpayers with respect, and helps them to understand the process,” Wang said.

“I want a fair and efficient tax system so we can enjoy a government we can trust and rely on.”

Travis County voter registration records indicate that Wang first voted in Travis County in 2018 and cast ballots in Democratic primaries.

Place 3

Dick Lavine

Richard Ira “Dick” Lavine, 76, is an attorney who serves as senior fiscal analyst with Every Texan (formerly the Center for Public Policy Priorities).

His profile on its website states that before coming to Every Texan in 1994, for a decade he was senior researcher at the House Research Organization of the Texas House of Representatives. In addition, he is a trustee of the City of Austin Employees Retirement System. The State Bar of Texas website shows he has been licensed to practice law since 1981.

Marya Crigler (left) and Leana Mann

More importantly in the context of this election, Lavine was a member of TCAD’s board of directors for 21 years, 1997-2018. He was the board chair in 2011 when the board voted to hire Marya Crigler as chief appraiser. (Crigler recently retired and was succeeded in December by Leana Mann, who had served as deputy chief appraiser.)

“I served 11 terms as an Austin ISD appointee,” Lavine told the Bulldog. “I didn’t expect the opportunity to come back.” But when SB 2 passed, that opened the door again.

Regarding the opportunity for the TCAD board to appoint ARB members, he said that had been the procedure before, until near the end of his previous service on the board.

He said the board spent whole days selecting ARB appointees, giving each applicant a 20-minute interview. “To me, the ARB (formal protest hearing) is where the public gets to interact with the appraisal district and feels listened to. One reason I was convinced to run was to maintain public confidence in the district and in the ARB.”

“The basic point of the TCAD election,” he added, “is that appraisal is a technical process; setting tax rates (and thus the tax bill) is a political process. My interest in running is to be sure to keep the political considerations out of the appraisal process.”

Travis County voter registration records indicate that Lavine first voted in Travis County in 1990, which is the earliest date available in digital records. As for primary elections, he has voted only in Democratic primaries.

William Joseph “Bill” May, 76. In a brief telephone interview Tuesday, May said he had served as a volunteer on the Capital Area Council of Governments Regional Law Academy, which provides training courses for peace officers and emergency telecommunicators.

May said his family moved to Austin when he was three years of age and he has lived in South Austin ever since.

The told the Bulldog that he had out of town guests and could not answer more questions. No information about him could be found online. He has not provided a photograph.

Travis County voter registration records indicate that May first voted in Travis County in 1998. As for primaries, he has voted only in those conducted by the Republican Party.

Other administrative changes made by SB 2

In counties with a population of more than 75,000 the members of the Appraisal Review Board will once again be appointed by the TCAD board of directors—not the local administrative judge.

Under SB 2, ARB appointments must be made by majority vote of the TCAD board and at least two members of the majority must be elected members of the board. In essence that gives elected members the ability to exercise a degree of veto power over appointments.

“This means that just two elected TCAD board members could stonewall ARB appointments, potentially in an attempt to influence the makeup of the ARB and the outcomes it produces,” candidate Daniel Wang said. “Thus the elected TCAD board members have a special responsibility to act fairly and impartially in selecting ARB members who will be efficient and fair.”

Historically the Travis ARB has been staffed by appointees numbering from as few as 37 in 2010 to 200 in 2022. But attrition in recent years has been high. Appointments and reappointments have usually been made around January but ARB formal hearings don’t actually begin until the summer. In the interim, some appointees changed their minds and didn’t want to serve, some failed to show up for the mandatory training that precedes hearings, and some found other jobs.

Cynthia Martinez

TCAD has budgeted for 100 ARB members for the 2024 protest season and those positions have been filled, says TCAD Communications Director Cynthia Martinez.

She said that pay for serving on the ARB varies depending on the how many years the member has served but starts at $150 per day, with extra pay for officers.

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. Email [email protected].

Related documents: 

Senate Bill 2 with introductory overview by the Perdue Brandon law firm, August 24, 2023 (63 pages)

Related Bulldog coverage:

Appraisal district headed for big management shakeup, August 30, 2023

Appraisal district proposes 2024 budget bump, June 1, 2023

Good news: No big jump in 2023 property values, February 21, 2023

Travis Appraisal Review Board members pared, December 22, 2022

Property value protests set new records, June 9, 2022

Appraised home values jump more than 50 percent, April 19, 2022

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