Board sets December 13 work session to discuss 2020 process
A trio of property tax agents whose two firms represented more than 54,000 Travis County property owners in contesting property values this year came to the November 13, 2019, TCAD board meeting to tell the directors about a long list of bad things that happened during this year’s protest season.
They said the root cause of the problems was that in 2019—for the first time—the Travis Central Appraisal District (TCAD) barred face-to-face informal meetings between staff appraisers and property owners or their agents.
The new policy necessitated some 90,000 formal hearings to be conducted by the Appraisal Review Board (ARB), greatly increased costs, and left both property owners and agents frustrated with a protracted protest season that lasted some five months.
More than 800 new lawsuits were filed recently to challenge the values decided by the ARB panels.
The ARB is a separate legal entity and is independent of TCAD, although TCAD provides clerical support and budgets for its salaries and other expenses. ARB members are appointed by the local administrative judge.
Five Stone Tax Advisors
John Paul “JP” Krueger, founding partner and CEO of Five Stone Tax Advisors, was the first to address TCAD board members for the allotted three minutes. He ticked off a list of who loses when face-to-face appeals are not allowed: Some 400,000 property owners whose taxes had to pay for inflated costs, the 140,000 property owners who protested values, TCAD itself through loss of public trust, and the taxing entities that received certified tax rolls far later than they had in previous years.
“The ARB, now placing a value on over 35 percent of the county’s roll, has been exposed for what it is: a collection largely of non-licensed, part-time employees who, given their lack of experience and training, struggle to perform their sworn duty in line with rules and regulations.”
Krueger said the board has the responsibility and authority to fix the situation by reinstating the policy of opening TCAD’s doors to the public and once again offering face-to-face informal protests. That would save $2 million or more, make values more accurate, speed up certification of the rolls, increase public trust, and relieve the agency of the negative press coverage it’s received this year.
David Bawcom, director of appeals and a property tax consultant for Texas Protax, told the board that in past years when he discovered errors in the appraisal records he would communicate with the director of residential appraisals and errors would be eventually corrected.
Since that access to TCAD staff was cut off in early April this year, “when the notices (of value) went out, we discovered that several of our clients were noticed with incorrect homestead limitation adjustments. In May, we sent an email to the chief appraiser requesting these six with errors be corrected. With the ‘no-communication’ policy, we could not confirm that our communication was received.
“As of today, only two of the parcels referenced in these emails have been corrected.”
“Prior to certification, correction of these errors is fairly simple,” Bawcom said. “After certification it is much more difficult for the appraisal district to properly increase the tax liability of a property.”
Debra Bawcom, a senior property tax consultant for Texas Protax, told the board that complaints doubled this year and the majority concerned the protest process and how taxpayers are being treated by TCAD staff.
TCAD’s “approach to not allow one-on-one conversations between their appraisers and taxpayers, or the taxpayers agent, is counterproductive for the appraisal process, efficiency, accuracy, and goodwill.
“Taxpayers want to know that their opportunity to be heard concerning their property’s value has been taken seriously and fairly considered. However, the new ‘formal-only’ policy does not give the taxpayer a sense of fairness or seriousness about the process.”
She said that when a Protax agent went to TCAD offices to visit an appraiser he was first told that she was in a meeting. Then moments later a deputy sheriff asked him to leave the premises.
“During an ARB hearing I attended, the TCAD appraiser complained to the ARB that I should have brought my argument to her at her desk in April. She even testified I could have walked in the building and approached her desk to fix the issue.” Which was not true because TCAD issued a letter in early April that said agents “were to have no contact with individual appraisers.”
Debra Bawcom said that in May, she and David Bawcom went to the TCAD offices and asked to speak to the ARB chair and we were told that’s not allowed, that they must use email to communicate, and were rudely told to leave the building.
“We have now filed over 200 protests with the ARB under the clerical error provision to correct ARB orders that are not accurate and do not reflect the motion and vote made by the panel at the time of the hearing.
“TCAD’s clerical staff enters the results of the hearings and processes the orders sent to the property owner,” she said. “Those orders are not accurate and it does not appear to us there were any quality control checks put in place by TCAD to prevent the kinds of errors we are not having to file appeals on.”
“The property owner will receive an inaccurate tax bill that will be due…and will be required to pay taxes on an inaccurate amount simply because TCAD has not properly checked their data-entry processes and results,” Debra Bawcom said.
She asked the TCAD board to require the chief appraiser to “reinstate informal hearings” and allow conversations to fix errors and correct records.
Texas Protax attorney
Attorney Bill Aleshire told the board he represents Texas Protax. He said his law practice focuses on transparency and accountability.
He pointed out that a change in the Texas Open Meetings Act allows people to speak at public meetings about specific agenda items. He noted that in recent months TCAD has made improvements by installing a sound system and in posting both the agendas and the meeting materials on TCAD’s website in advance of board meetings.
Aleshire, a former Travis County judge and tax assessor-collector, asked if the board meeting was being recorded. Board Chair Tom Buckle said it was not. Aleshire said meetings should be recorded, the same as ARB hearings.
“Transparency is not a threat to TCAD or to the chief appraiser,” Aleshire said. “Transparency improves, and is the foundation of, good government. The chief appraiser needs to be more open,” he said, referring to Marya Crigler, a 30-year TCAD employee who has run the agency for the last eight years.
“It cost taxpayers millions more in 2019 by eliminating face-to-face negotiations for the vast majority of protests. Stakeholders were left out of the process,” he said. “You ought to require her to sit down with major stakeholders and not be surprised in April next year” like they were this year when the chief appraiser issued a letter saying that protests must be e-filed on the TCAD website and that would constitute the only informal hearing.
Aleshire noted the meeting materials posted online did not contain a copy of the chief appraiser’s report. Nor did a specific agenda item indicate the board would be discussing the policy that denied face-to-face appeals this year. Therefore the agenda item was not as descriptive as required.
Finally Aleshire noted there was an item for a joint report by the chief appraiser and the ARB chair that addresses only how much members of the ARB might be paid in 2020, including a proposal to pay experienced members more than new members.
“The only reason to do that is if the chief appraiser is opposed to paying more for experienced ARB members. It is improper—if you respect the independence of the ARB—for the chief appraiser to be opposed to how much they are paid.”
(Disclosure: Aleshire has represented The Austin Bulldog in two public information lawsuits in 2011. He also advises the Bulldog on public information requests.)
New administrative judge
District Judge Tim Sulak of the 353rd Civil District Court of Travis County, has since September 1 also served as Travis County’s local administrative judge. He attended the TCAD board meeting to introduce himself.
“The Tax Code imposes deadlines on when work must be done and it’s essential that it’s done in meeting those deadlines. There is a lot of stress for you and the ARB members I appoint.”
He said ARB members need to maintain neutrality and to serve with the highest standards of conduct and impartiality. They must be patient, open-minded, and respectful. There must be no impropriety because the community depends on them.
ARB Chair Thompson noted that criminal background checks on ARB member appointments need to be done earlier in the process. She also said that SB 2 would require special panels of ARB members with specific qualifications to hear protests of properties valued at more than $50 million.
Section 6.425 of SB 2 states those panel members must hold a juris doctor or equivalent degree, hold a master of business administration degree, be a licensed certified public accountant, be an appraiser, be a certified assessment evaluator, have at least 10 years experience in property tax appraisal or consulting, or be a licensed real estate broker.
Working on 2020 improvements
The ARB chair and the chief appraiser jointly briefed the TCAD board on experiences in the 2019 protest season and talked about changes that would be made for the 2020 protest season based on the lessons learned.
In reality, the planned changes for 2020 only nibbled around the edges of the problems experienced this year. They failed to address the larger reason for the problem that caused the number of ARB hearings to balloon from 23,000 in 2018 to 90,000 in 2019—cancellation of the property owner’s ability to have a face-to-face informal meeting with a staff appraiser.
ARB Chair Betty Thompson aired some of the problems experienced in the 2019 protest season and changes aimed at achieving better results next year.
As for recruiting ARB members to be appointed, she said that applicants for the 2019 work were supposed to be available for full-time work May through August, although the protest season actually ran through October 18.
But 29 ARB appointees had part-time jobs and many had trips planned, so they were not actually available. In addition, some felt it was okay to call on any given day to say they couldn’t be there that day. “We will develop an attendance policy that goes further as to what is acceptable,” Thompson said.
Thompson said this year ARB panelists may have made value decisions and wrote the wrong numbers on the decision sheets, a problem to be addressed with better quality control.
Crigler said that transcription errors in ARB panel decisions entered into the TCAD property records will be addressed in 2020 with an application so that ARB decisions need no transcription and a copy of the decision will be sent to the taxpayer.
Thompson said the scheduling of ARB hearings will be reworked to provide a longer lead time for notices to property owners and agents.
This year, Thompson said, 10 ARB panels were released early on 57 percent of the hearing days. The ARB was operating 32 panels and didn’t have enough members to staff the desired 40 panels.
Because first requests for rescheduling an ARB hearing must be granted, Thompson said, in 2020 that function will be handled by TCAD’s Customer Service staff, while second requests will come to the ARB for a decision.
Crigler told the board that the ARB cost of $1.55 million to operate in 2019 but “will be offset by gains in staff time.”
JP Krueger of Five Stone challenged the assertion of savings in staff time. “I’ve been requesting financials and I’m not sure where this savings comes from…The payroll this year is in line with last year for the appraisal district.”
In 2019, 82 percent of protests were filed online and 18 percent were filed on paper, whereas in 2018, 90 percent of protests were filed on paper, Crigler said.
Crigler said 33 percent of protests, about 48,000, were resolved online, adding, “I would like to see more (protests) resolved through the online portal with offers.”
Crigler said that TCAD did not pay a ransom to restore its computer functions and that the agency is working with the FBI to identify the attacker.
She said that TCAD was looking to use artificial intelligence to speed up processing of deeds in a pilot program that would read the documents, extract the required information, and automate the updating process.
TCAD Board Chair Tom Buckle asked about recommendations for reinstituting informal face-to-face meetings next year, as did board member Anthony Nguyen.
Crigler said, “We have heard from property owners” that face-to-face meetings were “really missed. It’s important for us to communicate and explain to property owners. For about 15 years we gave informal face-to-face with agents. That might be our suggestion going forward as well.”
To address the topic of face-to-face hearings for 2020, the board scheduled a work session for 10:30am Friday December 13, followed by a regular board meeting at 11:30am that day.
Attorney Aleshire warned the board: “If you consider providing face-to-face informal protests only for taxpayers without agents, expect to defend that in court. There’s no rationale to that. I ask you to ask your staff to collaborate with stakeholders.”
Thompson said her goal for 2020 is to be able to certify and approve the tax roll by August 15, meaning that once again she envisions needing TCAD board approval. The Tax Code, Section 26.01(a), requires the chief appraiser to certify the appraisal role by July 25. But Section 41.12(c) permits appraisal district boards in counties with a population of at least 1 million to postpone the deadline to not later than August 30, which the TCAD board did for 2019.
“That July 20 deadline with this volume before the ARB is very difficult. It will be challenging.” In effect she is planning to repeat the high volume of formal ARB hearings that will result in 2020, as it did this year, if informal face-to-face hearings with staff appraisers are not reinstituted.
Thompson recommended increasing the pay of ARB members who return for a second or third protest season. TCAD board member Theresa Bastian moved to approve and the board voted 6-3 in favor of the motion. Board members Blanca Zamora-Garcia, Eleanor Powell, and James Valadez voted no.
Proactive outreach plan
Crigler introduced Cynthia Martinez, who was hired September 30 as TCAD’s communications director, a new position.
Martinez said TCAD in the past tended to be reactive to the media. She said she wanted to start forming positive relations with media organizations and would be proactive in pitching stories so that property owners get needed information. TCAD’s website will be retooled to that end as well.
She said that TCAD will be active on social media including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn.
Martinez provided the board with its first Monthly Communications Report, which indicated there had been 29 total news stories, of which 93 percent had a “positive tone.”
The report stated that TCAD’s website had 190,289 total sessions and 104,500 total visitors, of which only 0.001 percent came through social media.
Related Bulldog coverage:
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
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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