Property value protest hearings harshly criticized

HomeTravis Central Appraisal DistrictProperty value protest hearings harshly criticized

TCAD board votes to approve $20.2 million for 2020

John Krueger

John Paul “JP” Krueger, founding partner and CEO of Five Stone Tax Advisors, was the first of several people to give directors of the Travis Central Appraisal District an earful about shortcomings in this year’s process for protesting property values set by the appraisal district.

Speaking at an August 27, 2019, public hearing on the district’s Proposed 2020 Budget Tuesday and again in Citizens Comments in the board meeting following the public hearing, Krueger noted that the budget for the Appraisal Review Board (ARB) that conducts formal protest hearings has increased “eight to 10 times” this year compared with recent previous years.

The total 2019 ARB budget was $257,250, according to the appraisal district budget adopted in August 2018. The proposed 2020 ARB budget is $1,201,325. But that may not be nearly enough because this year’s actual expenditures are now anticipated to be $1.7 million and are likely to hit $1.9 million or more as the ARB protest hearings continue through mid-October.

These ballooning costs are directly attributable to the appraisal district doing away with face-to-face informal protests and instead mandating that informal protests of property valuations be filed online. TCAD appraisers review these protests and may make an offer. Property owners can accept the offer or request formal hearings before the ARB.

“Who benefits from the decision not to have face-to-face informal hearings?” Krueger said. “Usually when you have additional costs there’s a benefit and I don’t see it. We’re not getting more accurate values—that’s for sure.”

Betty Thompson

ARB chair Betty Thompson told the TCAD board at its August 6 meeting, “We will end up hearing about 90,000 protests (in 2019), more than ever.” If the 90,000 figure holds true that’s an increase of 335 percent over 2018 when, according to information obtained with a public information request, the ARB conducted 26,905 hearings.

2018 was the first year in which value protests could be filed online. It was also the last year in which property owners or their agents could still meet face-to-face with appraisers, share evidence, and try to arrive at an acceptable value.

Debra Bawcom

Debra Bawcom, a senior property tax consultant for Texas Protax, told the board, “I’ve been doing this for 25 years throughout the state…In prior years I would come into this building (for face-to-face informal protests) and have a rational experience. That communication is entirely shut down with this new process.”

She said the online-only informal protest system is not working. “An offer comes back with no backup information. It’s take it or leave it.”

“Then you go to the ARB and people are there (waiting) three or four hours,” she said, adding that there were no vending machines for drinks and snacks. “It’s the least transparent and most closed process I’ve ever seen.”

David Bawcom

David Bawcom, director of appeals and property tax consultant for Texas Protax, told the board, “I started this in 1985. I now represent 35,000 taxpayers. I’ve been doing this for 35 years and this year was incredibly different.

“You’ve never seen me before because I never spoke to (TCAD) board for fear of retaliation,” he said.

He estimated that TCAD will spend an extra $5 million a year to cover ARB costs and the arbitrations and lawsuits that will follow when property owners decide to contest ARB value decisions.

Bawcom said doing away with face-to-face informal hearings will have “huge, long-term” consequences and was done without input. “There should have been a task force with input from stakeholders.”

Steve Neel

Attorney Steve Neel, a Travis County resident who argued to lower his home’s value in a formal protest hearing this year, said, “It was a total train wreck.”

After presenting his evidence to the ARB panel, TCAD’s appraiser gave a property value, the panel agreed and closed the hearing. “I was cut off and couldn’t rebut,” Neel said, “It was clear to me that I was in a rubber-stamp process.”

Board digs into complaints

The TCAD board of directors listened to the complaints and for the first time in recent months asked pointed questions about what people protesting their property values were experiencing.

There were questions about how long people had to wait for protest hearings. ARB Chair Thompson responded by explaining how she managed the hearing process in which 35 ARB three-member panels will be operating at the same time and moving through the process in 20 minutes per hearing. Using a check-in application that TCAD provided, Thompson said she tracks through her desktop computer how long each person has waited.

Thompson said the law requires her to offer rescheduling to anyone who waited more than two hours, but noted the clock doesn’t start running until the time a person’s hearing was scheduled to start.

She said the no-show rate is about 35 percent and estimated that “50 percent” of scheduled hearings will be rescheduled this year.

Anthony Nguyen

Board member Anthony Nguyen asked numerous questions related to elimination of face-to-face informal hearings this year and Thompson conceded formal hearings had increased this year. She said she some people were not aware of the opportunity to file an online protest.

Ryan Steglich

Board member Ryan Steglich asked Thompson if she had reports she could share on how long property owners were waiting for hearings. She said she tracks things in real time and does not go back and look. “I do my best to help property owners understand the process.”

Steglich also asked if it was true there were no snack machines available for property owners waiting for hearings.

Leana Mann, TCAD’s director of operations, replied, saying, TCAD had tried to get vending machines for the building where protest hearings are held but vendors thought it “wasn’t worth their while.”

Board approves 2020 budget

After much discussion, the board voted 5-1 to approve the proposed 2020 Budget of $20.2 million. Voting for approval were:

Chair Tom Buckle, who represents Western Travis County and has been on the board since 2010.

Theresa Bastian, an AISD appointee who joined the board in 2018.

Eleanor Powell, one of two City of Austin appointees, who has been on the board since 1989.

Ryan Steglich, an AISD appointee who joined the board this year.

Secretary-Treasurer James Valadez, who represents Travis County and has been on the board since 2016.

Nguyen, who joined the board in 2018 to represent East Travis County, voted no. He said that before voting for the budget he wanted the board to discuss whether to allow face-to-face informal hearings in the 2020 protest season.  That discussion will be on the agenda for the board’s next meeting in November, Buckle said.

Absent from Tuesday’s meeting were:

Tax Assessor-Collector Bruce Elfant, who joined the board in 2013.

Vice Chair Bruce Grube, a board member representing Travis County since 2012.

Felipe Ulloa, appointed jointly this year by AISD and the City of Austin.

Blanca Zamora-Garcia, appointed by the City of Austin in 1998.

Tax rolls certified on time

ARB Chair Thompson told the board, “We are certified at 95 percent,” the threshold by which TCAD can certify tax rolls for the 113 taxing units that will calculate tax needs and set tax rates for FY 2020, which for most agencies served by TCAD starts October 1, 2019.

But Thompson noted that protests totaling about $13.5 billion of the roughly $270 billion total tax roll are still being heard by ARB panels and that process will continue well into October.

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Proposed 2020 Budget for Travis Central Appraisal District (210 pages)

Related Bulldog coverage:

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:

Photo of Ken MartinKen 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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