Not allowing face-to-face appeals created higher costs, reduced satisfaction, and delayed approval of tax rolls
If you are among the owners of the 400,000 residential and commercial properties in Travis County then you are directly affected by a small government agency that establishes the value of your property.
That valuation is a major factor in how much you must shell out for property taxes that enable schools, cities, and other government agencies to meet their budget needs.
This year, if you didn’t agree with your property valuation and were among the 140,000 property owners who tried to get it changed, then you already know the Travis Central Appraisal District (TCAD) made that chore much more difficult this year.
The Austin Bulldog set out to explore the ramifications of the changes TCAD made this year and ran into a stone wall. By job description the media spokesperson for the appraisal district is Chief Appraiser Marya Crigler—a 30-year employee finishing her eighth year in charge. Crigler, whose 2019 salary is more than $210,000, refused to give an interview. In addition, she refused to answer any of the written questions provided at her request. Instead she provided a brief statement (see sidebar).
Crigler goes it alone
All other appraisal districts serving major metropolitan counties in Texas allow and even encourage property owners to meet informally with appraisers, reach agreement on property values when possible, and reduce the need for formal protest hearings before an Appraisal Review Board.
But not TCAD.
For the 2019 protest season—for the first time since Crigler was promoted to chief appraiser in November 2011—TCAD did not permit owners or their agents to meet face-to-face with appraisers to informally resolve disputes over the valuation of their property.
Instead, protests had to be filed through TCAD’s e-services portal.
A bright red notice at the top of the portal webpage proclaims, “NOTE: An E-file protest serves as an informal protest hearing.”
The procedure allowed a property owner or agent to file a protest online and get immediate confirmation that it’s been filed. After review and if the TCAD appraiser agreed it is warranted, the protest would result in a settlement offer. The property owner or agent could either accept the offer or opt for a formal Appraisal Review Board (ARB) hearing.
How TCAD processed the e-file protest is locked in a black box. The property owner did not get to see what evidence the TCAD appraiser used to decide whether to offer a settlement or how big it would be.
This year, significantly more property owners were unwilling to accept responses made by TCAD appraisers and conveyed through the electronic protest process. As a result the Travis ARB wound up hosting some 90,000 formal hearings. That’s 335 percent more than the 27,000 hearings held in 2018.
No notice, no public input
Critics say that Crigler’s decision to eliminate face-to-face informal meetings with staff appraisers was made without public input.
David Bawcom, director of appeals and a property tax consultant for Texas Protax, on August 27, 2019, told the TCAD board of directors, that 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.”
Crigler refused to answer The Austin Bulldog’s question about what has been gained by this new policy. She also refused to say whether she would defend limiting appeals to electronic filing and recommend it be continued in the 2020 protest season.
It’s not clear whether the TCAD board of directors was aware of and discussed beforehand the far-reaching repercussions from abolishing face-to-face informal meetings.
After the August 27, 2019, meeting, attorney Tom Buckle, who has served on the board since 2010 and was elected chair in January 2019, told The Austin Bulldog that the decision to forego face-to-face meetings with appraisers was discussed in a board meeting at the end of 2018 or in early 2019.
“We were consulted,” Buckle said. “I thought it (the decision to quit allowing face-to-face meetings between appraisers and property owners) was within her (Crigler’s) prerogative to implement, although there was concern as to whether it would work.”
No such discussions are noted in the minutes of the TCAD board of directors meetings for 2018 and 2019.
Most governmental organizations in Travis County make audio and/or video recordings of public meetings. Some provide live video coverage accompanied by a running transcript. TCAD does none of these things. It produces only written minutes. This complies with the minimum requirements of Section 551.021 of the Texas Open Meetings Act. But this minimalist approach makes it impossible to determine what discussions may have taken place at a board meeting.
At the August 27, 2019, meeting some TCAD board members were not happy with the backlash created by eliminating informal face-to-face meetings. Board member Anthony Nguyen voted against approving the 2020 budget because the issue of whether TCAD would continue this practice in the 2020 protest season had not be resolved.
In response Chair Buckle said the item would be discussed at its next board meeting. That meeting is scheduled to start at 11am Wednesday November 13 at 8314 Cross Park Drive in northeast Austin. (Not 11:30am as originally reported.)
Contacted by email Monday November 11, Nguyen said that he had confirmed with the chief appraiser that this matter can be discussed under Agenda Item 5d: “Appraisal Review Board chair and chief appraiser joint report of 2019 protest season and recommendations for 2020.” There is nothing in the 172 pages of meeting materials to indicate the chief appraiser’s position or recommendations.
The agenda and meeting materials are linked at the bottom of this story.
Small agency, big impact
TCAD is one of the smallest and least funded local government agencies in Travis County. Its $20.2 million budget for 2020 authorizes 129 employees.
Under Crigler’s management, year after year the agency falls far short of actually filling its budgeted personnel quota—even in key positions. Right now, for example, it has no deputy chief appraiser and no information technology director. TCAD is making no effort to fill these slots, according to information obtained through public information requests.
Crigler refused to answer The Austin Bulldog’s question about why she hasn’t sought applications for a new deputy to replace Lonnie Wayne Hendry Jr., who abruptly resigned four months ago (just before The Austin Bulldog’s investigation exposed his wrongdoing).
Nor has TCAD acted to fill the information technology director’s job made vacant when James Taylor Autry was terminated in June 2018 after just nine days on the job.
Crigler refused to answer how not having an information technology director for the last 15 months may have affected TCAD’s ability to prevent or recover from a September 11 ransomware attack. The attack shut down access to TCAD’s website for a week, the Austin American-Statesman reported September 19.
TCAD out of step with peers and standards
According to information obtained by The Austin Bulldog, the practice of allowing face-to-face informal meetings between property owners and staff appraisers is being allowed and encouraged by appraisal districts in Bexar County (San Antonio), Dallas County, El Paso County, Harris County (Houston), and Tarrant County (Fort Worth).
That Travis County is an outlier on this issue is all the more remarkable because, according the Chief Appraiser Crigler’s latest financial disclosure, obtained through a public information request, she chaired the Metropolitan Council of Appraisal Districts in 2018.
In addition to being at odds with TCAD’s peers, denying these face-to-face informal protest meetings runs counter to the standards published by the International Association of Assessing Officers. The standards recommend, “The appeal process should begin with an informal consultation between the assessor and the property owner…
“The informal consultation may, at the option of the property owner [emphasis added] be a face-to-face meeting, telephone conference, or correspondence by mail, fax, or electronic mail.”
For 2019 the property owners and their agents were given no such option.
The end result of closing off this popular and effective means of settling protests had numerous ramifications, as follows:
(1) Higher costs—The Travis Appraisal Review Board (ARB) was staffed with 150 people in 2019—double the number for 2018. The ARB operates with three-member panels that host hearings in which the property owner (or agent) and TCAD appraiser present evidence, then decide the property value to be taxed.
The 2019 ARB budget was $257,250, nearly identical to the $256,425 budgeted for 2018. And the number of protests filed in 2018 and 2019 were nearly identical as well.
But the ARB cost was pegged at $1.2 million in the 2020 budget approved August 27—a 466 percent increase. Even that amount is unlikely to be sufficient. It was stated at the August 27 board meeting that actual costs this year were likely to run between $1.7 million and $1.9 million—more than seven times the ARB cost in 2018.
Crigler refused to answer The Austin Bulldog’s questions about what she hoped to gain by eliminating the informal face-to-face meetings with appraisers and whether she had considered the additional cost to taxpayers by doubling the size of the ARB. The TCAD board approved increasing the size of the ARB.
(2) Longer wait times—As The Austin Bulldog reported August 16, 2019, the building used for ARB hearings was jam-packed. Parking was nearly impossible. Property owners had to wait for hours to get into a formal hearing limited to 20 minutes.
At the August 27 TCAD board meeting, attorney Steve Neel testified that his formal hearing “was a total train wreck.” He said, “It was clear to me that I was in a rubber-stamp process” when the ARB panel adopted the TCAD appraiser’s statement and didn’t allow him to rebut.
Neel is not alone in his assessment. From August through October of this year, 17 written complaints were filed with the Taxpayer Liaison Officer. Many of those said the formal hearings were unfriendly, time consuming and inefficient. Property owners said they were given too little time to present evidence. One owner said he was told his closing statement would be limited to just one sentence. Several complainants requested the informal face-to-face meetings be reinstituted in 2020.
(3) Longer protest season—Instead of the ARB being able to start hearings around May 1, per guidance of the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, and approve appraisal records by July 20, in 2019, the ARB hearings were not started until June 4 and then were delayed another week before resuming after problems were resolved.
This was not unexpected. At its October 16, 2018, meeting the TCAD board voted to authorize approval of appraisal records be delayed until August 30, 2019.
Even so, ARB Chair Betty Thompson told the TCAD board August 27, 2019, that hearings would have to continue well into October to resolve all protests. The protest season lasted nearly five full months.
Crigler refused to answer The Austin Bulldog’s question about whether extending the protest season diminished the amount of time TCAD appraisers have to spend in the field doing appraisals and discovering new properties that should be added to the tax rolls.
(4) Late certification of tax rolls—The City of Austin didn’t get its certified tax roll until August 16, 2019, city Budget Manager Erik Nelson told The Austin Bulldog, though “by state statute it’s supposed to be received on or before July 25.”
Nelson said in previous years the City received the certified tax roll on July 15, 2018; July 8, 2017; and July 18, 2016. But it wasn’t received until August 25 in 2015. Because of the delay, in both 2015 and 2019 the City Council had to adopt the budget at one meeting and then adopt a tax rate at a later time.
(5) Less accurate values—Because the ARB personnel who hear and weigh the evidence presented by TCAD staff and property owners (or their agents) are not themselves trained appraisers, the value decisions they made are generally not as accurate as what was achieved in prior years with face-to-face informal meetings with staff appraisers, according to major companies that act as agents for owners.
John Paul “JP” Krueger, founding partner and CEO of Five Stone Tax Advisors, said at the August 27, 2019, TCAD board meeting, “Who benefits from the decision not to have face-to-face informal hearings? 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.”
As a result, due to dissatisfaction with ARB value decisions, property owners were more likely to appeal through binding arbitration, administrative hearing, or litigation.
Indeed, records obtained through public information requests indicate more than 800 new lawsuits were filed against TCAD over the last few months.
(6) Radically different results—Making the new process all the more inexplicable, TCAD’s 2020 budget, approved by the board of directors August 27, contained a graphic that indicates in 2018, 66 percent of protests were settled by informally meeting with an appraiser.
In 2019 about half that many were resolved through the e-file system in which a property owner sends evidence, the appraiser examines it, and then may make a settlement offer.
Updated meeting documents for the November 13, 2019, TCAD board of directors meeting (190 pages) added 10:11am November 13, 2019
Related Bulldog coverage:
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. See more on Ken on the About page.
Email [email protected].
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