Chief appraiser evades penalty for consequences of decision to bar property owners or agents from meeting with staff appraisers to protest values
The Travis Central Appraisal District met yesterday and its business included an 80-minute closed-door executive session to review the performance of Chief Appraiser Marya Crigler.
After which in an open meeting the board voted to increase Crigler’s compensation from $210,080 this year to $220,000 in 2020. On top of that the board added an $11,000 cash bonus.
This despite every key performance measure pointing to TCAD’s bad year, reported and charted by The Austin Bulldog December 1.
Only board member Anthony Nguyen voted against the compensation package. Voting for the pay package were board chair Tom Buckle, vice chair Bruce Grube, secretary James Valadez, and members Theresa Bastian, Eleanor Powell, and Felipe Ulloa.
Ryan Steglich and Blanca Zamora-Garcia were absent. Bruce Elfant, tax assessor-collector, is an ex officio member who is not permitted to make motions, second motions, or vote on them.
Nguyen later explained his “no” vote via email: “While I do feel that the Chief is a good manager and I can’t think of anyone better for the job for Travis County, we could have done a better job with communicating changes to the Board and public.
“I voted no on the pay raise simply because the pay increase was too high. Remember, this amount was on top of an overall 62 percent increase since 2011.”
As The Austin Bulldog reported December 1, 2019, in 2012, Crigler’s first year as chief appraiser, her pay was $129,000. Her 2019 pay is $210,080, which equates to an increase of 62.9 percent over a period of eight years.
“The motion was for a 5 percent increase from the prior year and a $11,000 bonus,” Nguyen said. “I would have preferred an increase more in line with the current inflation rate. Our taxing entities now have SB2 that limits property tax growth by 3.5 percent and we should take that into consideration.
“Also, our protest rate is too high compared to other counties. We have not made enough efforts to set the right values the first time. If we can set the values right the first time, then the number of protests will be lower and our taxpayers will be happier.”
One decision, multiple consequences
In 2019 there were record-setting numbers of formal protest hearings before the Appraisal Review Board (ARB), more than 600 percent increase in cost of ARB hearings, more than double the number of complaints, and a big jump in the number of lawsuits filed and arbitrations requested, with more piling up daily.
The root cause of these poor results was Crigler’s sudden, unilateral decision announced in early April 2019 to no longer allow property owners or their agents to informally meet face to face with staff appraisers to exchange evidence and try to reach agreement on property values. In past years that procedure resulted in settling 90 percent of protests informally, vastly reducing the need for formal ARB hearings. This year, 63 percent of protests were shunted into the formal ARB hearings.
When board members asked Crigler why she did not allow the informal face-to-face process that had been used for many years to continue, she put forth an alibi that attorney Bill Aleshire said was not accurate.
First the alibi, then the refutation
Nguyen, a TCAD board member representing taxing entities in east Travis County since 2018, said the board was not consulted and there was no survey of public opinion. “It was just done. People were told after the fact that (informals) were ending.”
“I question how that decision was made,” Nguyen said. “This year the budget increased because there was no face-to-face meetings. We were late with certification (of the tax rolls). It cost more money.”
“Why was that?” he asked Crigler.
“We were sued in 2018 over concerns of fairness” in the informal process, Crigler replied.
Later in the meeting Aleshire addressed the board to challenge Crigler’s statement.
“I filed that lawsuit,” Aleshire said. “That lawsuit didn’t have any claim in it about whether informals were being treated fairly. What you heard from Marya is just not what that lawsuit was about. It was about denying ARB hearings by overscheduling them and then claiming they were no-shows or couldn’t show because of scheduling.”
“We settled that case with an agreed order simply to give the hearings,” he said.
2020 process set for January meeting
Although Chief Appraiser Crigler’s recommendation to reinstitute informal face-to-face protest meetings for 2020 had already been made public, no decision was made at this board meeting. The topic will be posted for discussion and action at the next meeting scheduled for 11:30am Monday January 13, 2020.
Much of the board discussion about how to process property value protests revolved around an idea put forth by a board member who was absent but had submitted a written proposal.
Ryan Steglich was appointed to the TCAD board this year by Austin ISD. His December 14 letter opens with, “My recommendation is for TCAD to create an opportunity for face-to-face meetings to review information only if appraisers are not able to change appraised values during these face to face meetings.”
It ends with this assertion: “Forcing an appraiser to make unilateral valuation changes while in a potentially adversarial face-to-face meeting creates a system ripe for abuses. Let’s have a system that is consistent, transparent and fair to all taxpayers.”
His letter was read aloud by board chair Buckle, who has represented west Travis County on the board since 2010.
Some of the board members seemed to like the idea. Buckle said of the proposal, “It’s trying to say go forward on informals but make decisions outside informals, so decisions are made in a fair way.”
Theresa Bastian, appointed to the TCAD board in 2018 by Austin ISD, said, “You can sit across from someone and feel pressure to make a deal. I think it’s fairer for everybody.”
Later she added that perhaps the appraiser could be authorized to reduce a value by “X” percent and “be settled right there. If for more it could go to a manager for approval.”
David Bawcom, director of appeals for Texas Protax, told The Austin Bulldog while the board was in executive session that in tax years 2016, 2017, and 2018, appraisers were permitted to offer settlements of as much as 15 percent reduction in values, but a manager’s signature was required for larger reductions.
Attorney Lorri Michel, who represents major property owners in litigation against TCAD and other appraisal districts, called Steglich’s proposal “a terrible idea.”
“I would strongly encourage you to reject the promotion of his proposal that doesn’t allow appraiser to reach a value. That’s how it’s done across the state.”
Debra Bawcom, CEO of Texas Protax, told the board, “You need to seriously consider the inefficiency of a system of having a taxpayer come in and have a discussion and not get a decision…I think it will get a lot of pushback.”
David Bawcom, also criticized the proposal, telling the board, “I was shocked,” to hear it, he said. “The idea of having informals without a settlement? Why have informals?”
In a hallway interview, John Paul “JP” Krueger, founding partner and CEO of Five Stone Tax Advisors, said, “What was frightening to me was how quickly board members jumped on Steglich’s proposal. Is this appraisal district trying to tell all other appraisal districts they are doing it wrong, that only TCAD has it right?”
Future board meetings to be recorded
Attorney Aleshire spoke during citizens communication to note that although he was pleased that TCAD had begun posting its meeting materials online, along with the posted meeting agendas, the agenda items involving the chief appraiser were not being posted.
Further, he asked, “Are you tape recording this meeting. If not, why the heck not? Other government bodies do. People might want to go back and listen to the meeting and the media can get access that way…It’s not hard.”
The board took up that matter during discussion of its posted item for revisions of the board’s operating policy.
Nguyen asked board members how they felt about recording the meetings and Buckle said, “It has no relevance but if you like to have a verbal record I have no problem.”
Nguyen responded, “It’s not required but I don’t think we should be doing the minimum. Most governments record meetings. We need to be recording.
Board members voted to implement recording. Nguyen later told The Austin Bulldog when he came on the board in spring of 2018 the meetings were being recorded but none have been recorded this year.
That’s confirmed by TCAD’s negative response to The Austin Bulldog‘s public information request for video or audio recordings of 2019 board meetings, filed in August.
Ryan Steglich letter to chief appraiser, December 14, 2019 (1 page)
Related Bulldog coverage:
TCAD 2020 to resume face-to-face informal protests, December 11, 2019
By every measure TCAD is having a bad year, December 1, 2019
TCAD board gets earful about impact of barring face-to-face appeals, November 18, 2019
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 and investigating and reporting on Travis Central Appraisal District since 2011. See more on Ken on the About page.
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