New procedures undermine appraisal protests

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Photo of Marya Crigler

Chief appraiser’s unilateral policy changes add more formal hearings and increase costs

Marya Crigler, who was named chief appraiser of the Travis Central Appraisal District in November 2011, this year implemented fundamentally different procedures for handling protests of property valuations assigned by her staff.

The changes resulted in vastly increased numbers of property valuation protests that must be decided by the Travis Appraisal Review Board (ARB). The ARB is an independent body that hears protests and determines the value upon which property taxes will be levied.

Next Wednesday, June 12, the ARB will decide whether to accept all, some or none of the results of the first day’s protest hearings held June 4, 2019.

If the board does as ARB Chair Betty Thompson announced immediately after the June 4 hearings, the whole day’s work will be trashed and the hundreds of protest hearings held that day will be rescheduled and held again.

“We have had some confusion, different decisions and inconsistent decisions across panels regarding the evidence,” Thompson told the ARB panelists, according to a video taken by an employee of Five Stone Tax Advisers and provided to The Austin Bulldog. “I am postponing all hearings. They will be re-noticed and a tentative date they will be re-noticed for is Saturday June 29th.

“I will make a recommendation to the full ARB that due to the inconsistent decisions made across panels that you not approve these hearings that have already happened today. It will be a 100 percent re-noticing of the hearings.”

Roy Armstrong

The video recording of Thompson’s announcement shows that ARB attorney Roy L. Armstrong of Armstrong & Armstrong PC, based in Taos, New Mexico, supported Thompson’s position. He said it was necessary because of inconsistencies in the way June 4 protest hearings were conducted.

“We had some legal issues we did not anticipate,” Armstrong said. “We had panels making inconsistent decisions.”

“In order to address those issues and to allow additional time for consideration of these issues, and to make sure all ARB members have been privy to the legal advice on this issue, we decided the best thing to do was to simply postpone the hearings and recommend that the ARB not approve the panel recommendations that have been made so far.” He said everyone would get a new hearing.

Thompson then said that ARB panels would not work again until Friday, June 7.

TCAD evidence not provided in many cases

The inconsistency that Thompson and Armstrong alluded to was that some ARB panels allowed and considered evidence provided by appraisers that protesting property owners or their agents had not seen.

This happened despite extensive training the Armstrong law firm provided to ARB panelists in early May. The PDF slides of that training (linked at the bottom of this story) provided clear guidance. One slide, labeled “Evidence Controversy arises from a (property owner’s) right to inspect and copy evidence that the appraisal district plans to introduce during the 14 days before the hearing. If the property owner objects, ARB should not consider evidence that the (central appraisal district) should have produced but didn’t. The best hearing is one in which neither side is tricked or ambushed.”

Texas Tax Code Section 41.461 requires the chief appraiser to at least 14 days before a hearing on a protest to “inform the property owner that the owner or the agent of the owner may inspect and may obtain a copy of the data, schedules, formulas, and all other information the chief appraiser plans to introduce at the hearing to establish any matter at issue….”

The reason the information, informally known as “evidence packets,” was not seen before is that—in a departure from procedures followed in previous years—the packets were not mailed to protesters.

The upshot is that every one of the 140,000 protests the owners or their agents would have had to troop over to the appraisal district offices at 8314 Cross Park Drive to get that information—if it were available, and indications are that it was not available.

Bill Aleshire
Bill Aleshire

Attorney Bill Aleshire, who represented both Texas Protax and Five Stone Tax Advisers in a lawsuit against TCAD last year, told The Austin Bulldog, “The only panel decisions they should dismiss are the ones that allowed in the TCAD evidence not provided. All the rest should be okay.”

But Aleshire said he doubted that TCAD was even able to provide the evidence packets.

“Six Protax agents went to TCAD to get packets and were told they didn’t know about it. They were told to print out the packets from a public terminal and there were none there,” Aleshire said.

(Disclosure: Aleshire represented The Austin Bulldog in two public information lawsuits against the City of Austin in 2011.)

Only informal protests this year were e-filed

Chief Appraiser Crigler eliminated all face-to-face meetings between appraisers and property owners or their agents and instead provided a means to file a protest through TCAD’s e-services portal.

“NOTE: An E-File protest serves as an informal protest hearing,” proclaims a bright red notice the top of the portal webpage.

The procedure allows a property owner or agent to file a protest online and get immediate confirmation that it’s been filed. After review and if TCAD agrees it is warranted, the protest would result in a settlement offer. Then the property owner or agent can either accept the offer or opt for a formal ARB hearing.

Aleshire said there’s no law that mandates informal meetings with appraisers and Crigler is within her authority to rely upon the e-protest.

“It’s legal but it’s stupid,” he said. “She took no input from anyone.” In the informal system used in previous  years, each side showed their evidence. “Under e-protest, TCAD doesn’t show its evidence.”

Aleshire said under the system as it is now, the ARB “can’t possibly hold all those hearings.”

Evidence requested not timely provided

John Krueger

John Paul “JP” Krueger, founding partner and CEO of Five Stone Tax Advisers, said his firm handles property owner protests in 49 Texas counties and TCAD is the only one that doesn’t allow face-to-face informal hearings with appraisers.

“This puts a tremendous burden on the ARB,” Krueger told The Austin Bulldog.

Emails provided by Krueger show that a Five Stone employee requested evidence packets May 16. TCAD’s May 29 response was that it could not provide them until June 10—the week after the initial round of hearings for Five Stone’s clients.

“This is our busiest time of the year as you well know,” wrote Trisha Dangerfield-Bell, TCAD’s records coordinator. “The evidence packets are being provided through the portal as they are completed. June 10 is the projected date of completion of this project under the circumstances. If it can be completed sooner, we will advise.”

Krueger said his firm is handling protests for 19,200 clients in Travis County this year and the ARB scheduled nearly 1,600 of those for a single day, June 4.

A letter from Krueger to ARB Chair Thompson dated May 28 and sent via email states that TCAD had provided evidence for just 27 of the 1,572 hearings scheduled for June 4.

The letter cites Tax Code Section 41.461, which requires that evidence  be made available to the protesting party at least 14 days before the hearing. Otherwise it “may not be used in evidence in the hearing.”

“Five Stone hereby objects to TCAD’s introduction of any evidence in those cases, except for the 27 in which CAD evidence was timely provided.

“Please reschedule the 1,545 hearings to allow the CAD to timely provide Five Stone evidence at least 14 days before the hearing.

“Or will the ARB proceed with those hearings as scheduled and prohibit the CAD from offering any evidence?”

Thompson’s email response May 30 states, “You will need to present why you are due the evidence. From there each panel will decide. There will be absolutely no postponements due to this matter.”

Except there were postponements, as she announced June 4 after a full day of hearings.

Lawsuit possible if results nullified

Krueger told The Austin Bulldog he will wait until the full ARB decides June 12 before taking legal action. But if the ARB invalidates the hearings in which his firm won reductions, he may file suit.

“Hundreds of property owners received justice” in the June 4 hearings, he said. “TCAD got their values wrong. Just in my client hearings, ARB determined my clients were being overtaxed by $83,000.”

He said the ARB chair and ARB attorney Armstrong “flat out lied” in claiming they needed to toss out the hearings and start over.

He said the ARB panelists were trained and even had flow charts to guide them through the process instructing them not to allow evidence that was not provided to protesters as required.

Aleshire lays these problems at the feet of the chief appraiser. “Crigler had an excellent record and a great career, and she’s ruining it this year,” he said.

Crigler did not respond to a phone message for comments or to questions sent via email June 5.

Links:

2019 Travis ARB Advanced Workshop (94 pages)

2019 Travis ARB Workshop New Members (82 pages)

Related Bulldog coverage:

Lawsuit Seeks Property Tax Hearings, December 17, 2018

Homestead Exemptions a Tax Loophole,” February 26, 2014

Homestead Exemptions Rife With Abuse, December 20, 2013

Appraisal District to End Records Suppression, November 22, 2018

Chris Riley Nailed for Back Taxes, August 20, 2014

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].

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