Will have to publish another notice and hold hearing at a later date
Travis Central Appraisal District (TCAD) is a small agency of barely more than a hundred employees with a relatively modest budget but it has an enormous impact on both property owners and the 113 government agencies in Travis County that set their property tax rates based on the monetary value of the appraisal rolls that TCAD annually certifies.
When it comes to getting its own state-mandated legal process underway for adopting a budget for operations in 2020, however, TCAD mangled what should have been a routine and straightforward process of publishing a public notice so property owners and taxing units served by TCAD would be notified of a public hearing.
An agenda published July 31, 2019, announced the TCAD Board of Directors would convene a public hearing at 11:30am Tuesday, August 6, 2019, to hear what area residents had to say about its proposed 2020 budget totaling $20.2 million, an increase of 3.63 percent over the current 2019 budget of $19.5 million.
The public hearing was quickly cancelled after The Austin Bulldog filed a public information request August 5 for a copy of the public notice that state law requires to be published at least 10 days before the public hearing.
TCAD furnished a copy of the Austin American-Statesman ad with proof it was published July 24, a full 14 days before the scheduled hearing. (Copy pasted below.)
But the notice failed to conform to other legal requirements.
TCAD’s public information coordinator, Trisha Dangerfield-Bell, in an email response to our public information request, stated: “After an internal audit was conducted for compliance with the Texas Property Tax Code
[sic, the statute is Tax Code], Chapter 6 requirements, the District determined there was a typographical error in the advertisement that ran on July 24, 2019.
“The District will continue to hold a public hearing on the proposed 2020 budget on August 6, 2019. However, no board action will be taken.
“The District will hold a second public budget hearing prior to the September 15 deadline as required by the Texas Property Tax Code. All necessary posting and public hearing requirements of Chapter 6 will be repeated in compliance with the Texas Property Tax Code.”
Sometime after sending that email response at 4:38pm August 5, however, TCAD posted a cancellation notice on its website. The cancellation itself is not dated or time-stamped.
Notice did not comply with Tax Code
In examining the ad for compliance with Tax Code Section 6.062 The Austin Bulldog found no typographic error, per se, but determined the ad failed to comply in at least two important respects:
Ad too small—“The notice may not be smaller than one-quarter page of a standard-size ….” Yet the ad, as shown in the accompanying graphic, is obviously just a fraction of that size. (Click on the image to see to a screenshot of the ad as it appeared on the Statesman page.)
Was legal notice—Further, Section 6.062 states, the notice “may not be published in the part of the paper in which legal notices and classified advertisements appear.” The screenshot shows that the ad was in fact published as a legal notice.
Certification deadline to be met
Chief Appraiser Marya Crigler assured TCAD’s Board of Directors at the August 6, 2019, meeting that tax rolls would be certified no later than August 30, 2019.
“We are at 91.6 percent for certification this morning,” she said. “We should get there within the next two weeks,” referring to the 95 percent threshold for resolving protests as required for certification of tax rolls.
That’s good news—especially given the rocky start that the Travis Appraisal Review Board (TARB, a separate agency) got off to when it held the first protest hearings June 4. (For details see The Austin Bulldog report of June 6, 2019.)
Budget overstates numbers of employees
Personnel costs are the largest item in the budget and will consume 46 percent of the total budget ($9.4 million), according to the Proposed 2020 Budget. Benefits will take another 16 percent ($3.2 million).
The personnel cost of $9.4 million is based on a budgeted workforce of 129 employees. The proposed budget indicates TCAD actually had 110 employees, 15 short of the 125 authorized in the 2019 budget.
In fact the trend line going back to 2010, illustrated in a chart in the budget shows a longstanding inability to maintain TCAD staff at budgeted levels.
Shortfall in employment numbers ranged from as few as six fewer employees than were authorized in 2011 (123 actual vs. 129 authorized) to as many as 30 in 2017 (102 vs. 132 authorized).
The Austin Bulldog’s analysis of current payroll data obtained through multiple public information requests indicates the agency actually had 106 employees as of July 23, 2019, and had only one job posted to fill a lower-level vacancy.
The proposed budget notes the agency has vacancies in two key positions, including the director of information technology and the deputy chief appraiser—who as The Austin Bulldog reported July 10, 2019, resigned a day before our investigation exposed the fact that had employed two TCAD subordinates to work in his real estate brokerage.
Contracts authorized for 850 E. Anderson Lane
TCAD Operations Director Leana Mann briefed the board on responses to the Request for Qualifications for architectural services for renovation of the future home of TCAD staff. She said five firms applied for the job and recommended the contract be awarded to GSC Architects. She said the biggest factor in making the recommendation was that GSC had done more work for municipal projects.
Board member Blanca Zamora-Garcia said, “I wish I’d known this (RFQ) was going out. None of these (respondents) are minorities.”
Board Chair Tom Buckle said it would be trouble trying to start the process over again and the board voted to authorize negotiation and execution of a contract with GSC Architects.
Mann next briefed the board on responses to the Request for Proposals for a construction manager-at-risk to oversee interior renovations of the building and to construct a parking garage.
TCAD’s RFP included estimates of $3.5 million for the interior renovations and $4.3 million for the garage.
Documents obtained by The Austin Bulldog with a public information request show that preliminary estimates for the interior renovations totaled $3,109,411. The cost estimate for building a four-story garage with 340 parking spaces totaled $4,304,500, which equates to $12,660 per space.
Mann said three companies responded to the RFP and recommended Balfour Beatty Construction, which scored far higher that the competing bids. Again, she said the biggest factor was Balfour’s work done for other entities. “We are very happy with Balfour,” she said.
The board voted unanimously to authorize negotiation and execution of a contract with the company.
TCAD board approves budget, funders may veto
If the proposed 2020 budget of $20.2 million is approved by TCAD’s board of directors after a properly noticed public hearing is held, it will take effect automatically unless disapproved by the governing bodies of the county, school districts, cities, and towns served by the appraisal district.
TCAD’s fiscal year runs with the calendar year, so the 2020 budget will be active as of January 1, 2020.
Update: This story was updated 9:51am Wednesday August 14, 2019, to strike erroneous statement about the Texas Property Tax Code.
Chart: Budgeted vs Actual Personnel (1 page)
Related Bulldog coverage:
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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