TCAD board hammers ARB chair over costs, delay

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TCAD’s renovated office building at 850 E. Anderson Lane

Appraisal District staff has moved to renovated facility

Storey Cordelle

Storey Cordelle was appointed chairman of the Travis Appraisal Review Board (ARB) June 1, 2020. After just six months in charge, Cordelle came under heavy criticism from the Travis Central Appraisal District’s board of directors at its December 3, 2020, virtual meeting.

ARB members, including the chairman, are appointed by a district judge. The ARB is an  independent review body—not a TCAD department—but it relies upon TCAD for budgetary and administrative support.

The main thrust of the criticism centered on costs that already exceeded the 2020 budget for ARB operations and on top of that Cordelle’s request for an additional $88,425.

The additional $88,425 is needed to pay per-diem to ARB members to try by year’s end to complete some 23,000 formal protest hearings regarding TCAD’s 2020 valuations. Formal hearings are required when a property owner or agent does not accept the result of an informal protest with TCAD staff appraisers.

Cordelle anticipated there would be a problem with obtaining sufficient funding and appraisal district support staff to complete hearings for pending protests. So he sent a letter to TCAD Board Chair James Valadez on November 19, 2020. That letter was not relayed to other board members but the matter was put on the December 3 agenda.

At present all formal hearings are being conducted electronically. The 23,000 protests do not include a number of requested in-person hearings that are being postponed till 2021 due to the pandemic. The total amount needed is $137,750, which covers cost overruns already incurred and the additional money for hearings this month.

Theresa Bastian

The criticism was so harsh that at one point Board Member Theresa Bastian asked Cordelle if he had considered resigning.

“I represent AISD and at the rate ARB is going through money the CAD won’t have it to give to you and might have to go to taxing entities. I’m not happy about this situation,” Bastian said.

Cordelle replied, “I’m not a quitter. I don’t give up. I will get this train back on the track. I will need cooperation from property owners and the appraisal district. Please approve this money.”

Additional money is not a loan

Ryan Steglich

At that point Board Member Ryan Steglich, also an AISD appointee, asked if Cordelle was willing to commit to treating the $137,750 as a loan and “make the appraisal district whole.” Meaning take that amount out of the 2021 budget the board previously approved.

The 2021 TCAD budget includes $1,201,325 for the ARB—the same amount originally approved for 2020. An increase of $137,750 would bring the 2020 actual allocation to $1,339,075.

If the ARB “repaid” TCAD the $137,750, that would represent an 11.5 percent reduction in its 2021 allocation for formal hearings. Recruitment is already underway to increase the ARB to 200 members in 2021, up from its current roster of about 135.

Cordelle resisted Steglich’s offer and replied, “I don’t want to get to next year and not be able to do what we need to do.”

The ARB chair told the board that ARB hearings were previously conducted by three-member panels with a TCAD appraiser and property owner or agent physically present. Then—due to pandemic precautions—procedures were changed “overnight” to conduct all hearings electronically. ARB members used personal computers and telephones to communicate with TCAD staff and owners or their agents. “To go to online hearings was a monumental task,” Cordelle said.

Cordelle also said that ARB hearings were started a month later in 2020 than in 2019. “We didn’t have a crisis for Covid or a building completed and we started a month late. We did a fine job with what we had but we can certainly do better.”

Cordelle said the ARB “never completed training of ARB members and about 70 percent were new. We trained them on the job.”

Blanca Zamora-Garcia

Board Member Blanca Zamora-Garcia said she had served as an ARB member for four years before being appointed to the TCAD board by the City of Austin in 1998. During board discussion she asked rhetorically, “How can we explain this to taxpayers? Doing half the work for double the pay is not acceptable.”

Cordelle foreshadowed these problems in a November 19, 2020, letter to the TCAD Board Chair James Valadez. When the Bulldog inquired why the letter was not shared with other board members, TCAD issued the following statement—after the TCAD board meeting—to be attributed to Valadez:

James Valadez

“The Appraisal Review Board Chair and the Chief Appraiser both contacted me personally and requested that the Board hear and address the issue of the ARB’s budget during the December 3 board meeting. As a result, this item was added to the agenda and both the ARB Chair and Chief Appraiser were given the opportunity to present their concerns and answer questions from the TCAD Board of Directors.

“The ARB Chair’s mismanagement of time and taxpayer money is a matter of great concern for the Board and we are disturbed by the Chair’s inability and refusal to offer concrete solutions to address the situation or ensure it does not continue. Since May, the Chief Appraiser and TCAD staff have gone above and beyond in their efforts to resolve the situation, including offering informal meetings to property owners and tax agents, extending topline deadlines, and reallocating some of the agency’s own budget to the ARB.

“However, it is the ARB Chair’s job to manage the formal hearing process in a manner that respects the time and budget constraints that have been set. The ARB does not have a blank check and we will continue to hold the ARB Chair accountable for the impacts of his decisions.”

Looking ahead to 2021

Marya Crigler

Chief Appraiser Marya Crigler said TCAD has begun doing field work for reappraisal of property values. The goal is to be able to mail Notices of Appraised Value to property owners “as close to April 1st as possible so we can start ARB hearings in April and get informals completed as much as possible.”

Residential properties were not reappraised in 2020 based on Crigler’s stance that TCAD no longer had sufficient sales price data after it lost third-party access to Multiple Listing Service information owned by the Austin Board of Realtors. The TCAD board voted at its October 23, 2020, meeting to purchase proprietary data from Carahsoft Technology Corporation for an amount not to exceed $250,000. TCAD will execute the purchase through the Texas Department of Information Resources under an existing contract. The chief appraiser’s slides used to make the board presentation calls the data Carahsoft’s TransUnion Enhanced Real Estate Report. “Providing property appraisers with instant access to current data so they can properly report changes that impact property values and owner’s tax obligations. Features up-to-date reports on property characteristics including square footage, structural changes, number of bedrooms and bathrooms, sales price, historical sales price and sale data.”

Given that Covid conditions are expected to remain unchanged, Crigler said she anticipates using the same processes for 2021 that were implemented in 2020 after Covid procedures were implemented. She said document exchanges will be available for informal protests conducted through the online portal. With residential properties being reappraised in 2021 for the first time in two years comes the expectation that more property owners will file valuation protests.

In response to a board question, Crigler said TCAD has enough appraisers to do ARB hearings but not in the second quarter when they’re doing field work. Depending on results achieved in 2021 the district may need to add more appraisers and clerical staff in 2022.

Crigler said that TCAD will conduct outreach in January and February to raise awareness among residential property owners about the ability to apply for homestead exemptions.

Other board actions

Crigler’s performance review—As it does every year, the TCAD board held a closed-access executive session to review the chief appraiser’s performance in 2020. After a half-hour the public meeting was reopened to online observers. Board Member Steglich moved to renew Crigler’s contract. But instead of doing so for a single year, as has been done each year since she became chief appraiser in 2012, the board extended her contract for three more years. Additionally, for the first time in her eight  years at the helm, Crigler—at her request—was not given a pay raise. The board may appoint a committee to discuss any future salary adjustments. The motion was approved unanimously.

As previously reported by the Bulldog, Crigler’s contract for 2020 was set at $220,000 and she was given an $11,000 bonus.

Okayed computer storage—The board unanimously approved $193,766 to purchase Dell Technologies EMC Storage Solution equipment as replacement for the district’s current system. This will permit doing more frequent backups, keeping data longer, and implementing “a more comprehensive disaster recovery solution.” As reported by KUT FM 90.5, the district’s computer systems was hacked with ransomware September 11, 2019.

Renewed taxpayer liaison—The board approved another year’s $20,000 contract for Martin Wilbanks, who serves as the part-time taxpayer liaison. His workload increases dramatically during protest season as property owners go through the informal and formal processes for trying to get a reduction in the figures published in their Notices of Appraised Value.

Eleanor Powell

Powell leaving board—Eleanor Powell, who’s served on the TCAD board since 1989 as one of two City of Austin appointees, is leaving the board.

Austin City Clerk Jannette Goodall told the Bulldog, “The TCAD liaison just informed our office and staff are working with the Mayor’s office about filling the vacancy and they will let us know once the have someone.”

Powell was the subject of a Bulldog investigative report October 20, 2019, for, with her late husband, having homestead exemptions in both Texas and Colorado for a dozen years. Laws require that property owners have no more than one homestead exemption. Powell has not attended a TCAD board meeting since pandemic precautions were implemented in May 2020 to require them to be conducted electronically using the Sonexis Conference Manager.

Anthony Nguyen

Board’s next meeting—The TCAD board scheduled its next meeting for 11:30am Thursday, January 7, 2021. Board Member Anthony Nguyen asked that for future meetings the board members be provided meeting materials “at least 24 hours before” meetings. Board Member Bastian agreed. For the December 3 board meeting materials were not provided until that morning. The board is scheduled to get an update on ARB performance at the January 7 meeting.

TCAD staff moved to renovated facility

Leana Mann and Marya Crigler inspected the facility at 850 E. Anderson Lane in December 2019.

In a December 4, 2020, telephone interview with TCAD Operations Director Leana Mann, the Bulldog learned that the district’s entire staff has been relocated to the facility at 850 E. Anderson Lane.

“Everyone has moved in. Work stations are there but we haven’t unpacked everything,” Mann said.

As the Bulldog reported July 15, 2019, the Anderson Lane property was purchased by 850 EAL Holding Corporation, a nonprofit created by TCAD and managed by the officers of the TCAD Board of Directors. The purchase was financed with a $10 million loan from the Government Capital Corporation. The property consists of a 61,104 square foot, four-story building on 2.947 acres of land.

The estimated cost for renovations to the building interior was $3.5 million, according the Request for Proposals. The RFP also contained an estimated cost to build an adjacent parking garage for $4.3 million. The garage was not built, despite significant parking problems encountered during the 2019 in-person ARB formal hearings that year. The Bulldog reported those problems August 16, 2019. Once in-person formal ARB hearings are resumed, parking problems are likely to be far worse than 2019 because an expanded ARB staff of 200 will be conducting a far higher number of hearings at the same time.

Chief Appraiser Crigler sent letters to taxing units in April and May 2019, stating in bold print, “The District will not request any additional funds from the taxing units for this real estate purchase. The District holds sufficient funds in dedicated reserves and annually budgeted reserves for the building purchase and renovations.”

The letters also requested permission, after 850 E. Anderson Lane is renovated and operations are moved there permanently, to sell or lease the existing headquarters building at 8314 Cross Park Drive, a two-story structure of 34,909 square feet, and use the proceeds to make payments on the new facility.

Taxing units passed resolutions to approve Crigler’s request.

The Crosspark facility sits on a 4.59-acre lot. The 2020 valuation is listed at a market value of $5,139,646.

The adjacent Forbes Lane property TCAD owns is a 1.37-acre vacant lot with a market value of $477,416 for 2020.

Mann said she had “no idea” when the old building would go on the market. “We haven’t  had conversations. We have things to fix in the old building, general maintenance items. I don’t expect anything major.”

Links to related documents:

Storey Cordelle’s letter addressed to TCAD Board Chair James Valadez, November 19, 2020 (2 pages)

TCAD Adopted Budget for FY 2021, September 3, 2020 (230 pages) FY 2021 Adopted Budget

TCAD Board Agenda for December 4, 2020 (2 pages) 20201203 Agenda

TCAD Board Agenda meeting materials for December 4, 2020 (130 pages) 20201204 Back2

TCAD Request for Proposal for Renovations at 850 E. Anderson Lane, proposal due date July 26, 2019 (19 pages) RFP Construction

TCAD slides used to present information about the CarahSoft’s TransUnion Enhanced Real Estate Report (17 pages) CarahSoft Data