Appraisal district looks to avoid rocky 2022

HomeTravis Appraisal Review BoardAppraisal district looks to avoid rocky 2022

Spiking property values mean unhappy taxpayers, more appraisal protests, and a bigger workload at the Appraisal Review Board

The board of the Travis Central Appraisal District (TCAD) discussed Wednesday the upcoming 2022 appraisal and protest season, amid signs that the county’s property appraisal system is under increasing strain.

Marya Crigler

In remarks to the board, Chief Appraiser Marya Crigler drew attention to a growing compliance burden and ongoing hiring difficulties, while outgoing Appraisal Review Board (ARB) Chair Tom King emphasized the huge volume of protests this year and a shortage of ARB members.

As property values have risen in Austin, so too have the stakes of appraisals and the incentive to protest them. The ARB received more than 141,000 formal protests in 2021, nearly double the number from a decade ago.

That meant that TCAD and the ARB had to scramble over the summer to meet a July 20th statutory deadline to certify the tax roll—a step that’s critically important for the annual budgeting process of local governments.

Tom King

“It took a lot of hard work,” said King. “Our people at the ARB worked their tails off to do this. They worked a lot of late hours. Our panels were working not eight hours but nine and ten hours a day.” At times, some of the panels were conducting 60 or more hearings a day, many of them by phone.

But even that wasn’t enough. As reported by the Bulldog Monday, TCAD was only able to meet the certification deadline by making massive numbers of last-minute settlement offers to tax agents.

Such settlements, known as Agreed Orders, or “toplines,” resolved 64,000 protests over property worth $98 billion, or more than half of the total value protested, according to King.

Another 32,000 protests over $22 billion in property were resolved through informal settlement agreements, and the ARB itself handled more than 98,000 protests affecting properties worth $50 billion in value.

Property owners unhappy with ARB process

While 81 percent of protests are handled by agents hired to represent owners’ interests in seeking a lower valuation, individual property owners generally are less equipped to provide justification to achieve that result in a formal ARB hearing. Owners who failed to get what they want may leave bruised and discontent with the outcome.

Martin Wilbanks

Taxpayer Liaison Officer Martin Wilbanks reported that 705 property owners contacted him this year over the protest process, compared to just 286 the year before.

For example, property owner Monica Brieger said she “felt the board members needed more training,” according to a log of complaints reported by Wilbanks to the TCAD board. Other complainants felt that their evidence wasn’t properly reviewed and considered.

“The system is under stress,” Crigler acknowledged in response to Wilbanks’ report. “There is so much volume and such a short time to get it done in. I mean, we’ve got to do a hearing every two minutes, and while that’s not necessarily how long we actually grant, it does put pressure on the system, and taxpayers don’t feel like they get an opportunity to be fully heard.”

To avoid a repeat of this year’s mad dash, TCAD plans to invest in new technology, recruitment, and a new administrative position at the ARB. The district will also fund lobbying efforts to push for legislative changes that it believes could make its work easier.

Bruce Elfanbt

King, the outgoing ARB chair, was asked by TCAD board member Bruce Elfant what advice he had for the board. “Get prepared for next year,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a bear.”

“Because when I read in the newspaper what houses are selling for in this county now…there were more than 142,000 protests this year, or whatever it was, I think there may be more next year. And you’ll have more agents filing protests. They’ll be out scouting for business.”

New and returning officers

Heading into the next protest season, the ARB will be helmed by a new chair, Craig Phifer, who was appointed by Travis County Administrative Judge Amy Clark Meachum to replace King.

Craig Phifer

Although King has served as ARB chair only since April, he’s now in his sixth year on the board and has run up against a term limit. Phifer will be the fifth ARB chair in three years. He’s a former employee of the comptroller’s office and has served on the ARB since 2019.

Introducing himself to the TCAD board, Phifer said that homes are the “primary investment” of many Travis County residents and “they deserve the opportunity to be heard by the board—and we’ll give it to them.”

Meachum also appointed Kendall Kelly, a four-year member of the ARB, to serve as board secretary, replacing Sally Becker, who like King was term-limited. Terry Gaines will continue as vice chair for a third year.

Additionally, for the first time next year, the ARB will be assisted by a dedicated administrator. Crigler explained, “There’s new legislation that passed the past session that allows taxpayers to go to arbitration for procedural violations of the ARB so it’s going to be really, really important moving forward that we are dotting our ‘i’s  and crossing our ‘t’s in terms of all the procedural actions that we need to take with the ARB.”

Betty Thompson

Crigler asked the board to hire Betty Thompson for the role, who chaired the ARB for nearly four years. She said that Thompson had experience on procedural matters and would provide “continuity year-to-year” to assist the new chair and secretary at a time of transition. The TCAD board approved the contract unanimously. Thompson will earn $45,000 per year, according to a draft copy of the contract included in the agenda backup.

The board also renewed its contract with Taxpayer Liaison Officer Martin Wilbanks and increased his annual pay from $20,000 to $30,000, on his request. Wilbanks said the job had become more demanding.

Lastly, the board approved an increase to Crigler’s salary to $235,000 and gave her a merit bonus of 5 percent of her annual salary. That comes after a similar pay hike in 2019. As reported previously by the Bulldog, Crigler took the job in 2012 at a rate of $129,000 per year plus a car allowance of $8,250. With the latest raise, her base pay has risen 82.2 percent.

‘Not enough qualified applicants’

TCAD board members discussed efforts to recruit rank-and-file Appraisal Review Board members. TCAD had set a goal of having 200 ARB members in place for the protest season this year, but ended up with only 128, due to difficulties recruiting and retaining members.

“In recent years, we have not received enough qualified applicants to fill all of the positions,” wrote Administrative Judge Lora Livingston in an August letter to the TCAD chair. “Outreach efforts have expanded in recent years, and yet, it has been difficult to find enough interested citizens to fill the vast number of positions requested by the Board.”

In its latest round of advertising, TCAD spent $18,900 for radio ads on KUT but received only 36 applications, a cost of $525 per recruit, according to a report provided to board members Wednesday. Newspaper ads were similarly costly, but the district had better luck through Facebook and Nextdoor.

King said many first-year ARB members this year left for medical reasons or because they got a full-time job. Others simply hadn’t realized the time commitment involved and quit once they had a better understanding of what the job would entail.

Crigler reported recruitment challenges at TCAD, too, just as she had at the board’s last meeting August 30th: “We’re struggling with finding employees…it’s a struggle that all governmental agencies right now are facing.”

Leana Mann

To help address the issue, TCAD’s board in June approved a 12 percent pay raise for clerical staff, 7 percent for appraisers, and 3 percent for management. Even with the pay raise, however, clerical salaries at TCAD remain lower than both private and public sector equivalents, according to a June briefing by Leana Mann, TCAD’s Director of Operations.

Remote hearings to continue

A new wave of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2022 could prolong the ARB’s difficulties in finding enough members, according to King. Although many ARB hearings are held remotely, taxpayers are entitled to an in-person hearing upon request. That could make some potential recruits hesitant.

King said, “We’ve got 18 panels set up, socially distanced with plexiglass and all that kind of stuff, but we don’t have enough people on this ARB that are willing to come in here and risk getting infected from some property owner that comes in. So that’s going to be a big challenge next year.”

For her part, Crigler said she expects TCAD and the ARB to continue to rely on remote hearings, even after the pandemic subsides, calling them “the new normal.” The board approved a $210,000 purchase request for the installation of audio-visual conferencing equipment in two board rooms, three training rooms, and a conference room at the agency’s office.

The board also authorized the purchase of 75 iPads for field appraisers at a cost of about $80,000, and a contract for software to automate deed processing at a cost of $6,650 per month.

Hired lobbyists

Even though there won’t be a regular legislative session in 2022, the TCAD board voted to hire Ancira Strategic Partners for “consulting and lobbying services relating to legislative advocacy and representation.”

Jesse Ancira

The firm, headed by Jesse Ancira Jr., will be paid $5,000 per month for a period of two years (2022-2023). Ancira is a former lawyer and mayor of the City of Taylor who also served as chief of staff to then House Speaker Joe Straus. Crigler said she decided to hire his firm because her former deputy for policy and communications, Kate Alexander, had left in September, and she had not been able to find a suitable replacement.

Ancira, introducing himself to the board, noted that he and his partners have extensive experience dealing with property tax issues. “So we understand the process but equally important we understand the politics that we all live in today, particularly at the Capitol, particularly when it comes to property tax relief, appraisal relief, and all of those issues.”

The contract with Ancira Strategic Partners lists specific lobbying tasks that the firm will have to assist with at various stages of the legislative process, such as “preparing committee members on committee action to help advance TCAD priorities,” but it doesn’t list the actual legislative goals. Jesse Ancira Jr. has 14 other lobby clients, both public and private, that collectively pay a minimum of more than $838,000 and a maximum of more than $1.58 million per year, according to Transparency USA.

During the recent 87th regular session and the first special session in the summer, the TCAD chief appraiser advocated on behalf of nine bills, according to a briefing provided by Crigler to the board in August.

Crigler mentioned Wednesday that in the next session TCAD should advocate for bills that would relieve pressure on the ARB: “If legislatively there’s anything we can do to relieve some of that time pressure and stress on the system to create more time that we can devote and give each individual taxpayer an opportunity to be heard, I think that would help. It’s going to require some legislative action to create that time gap for us.”

Debbie Cartwright

The chief appraiser is authorized by a board resolution to act as a spokesperson on legislative matters. At its August 30th meeting, the board also voted to designate board member Debbie Cartwright as a spokesperson. Cartwright formerly held senior positions at the comptroller’s office and has past legislative consulting experience on tax issues.

Gearing up

The next big deadline in the property tax cycle is January 1st, by which TCAD must set an appraised value for properties in the district. Until then, appraisals are ongoing. “We are now in our discovery phase. We’ve completed substantially all of our protests,” Crigler said. “We are in the field gathering data, preparing the roll for the next year.”

The district will then mail appraisal notices by April 1st. Owners who believe that their notice of appraised value is incorrect will have until May 15th to file a protest. They’ll then have the opportunity to resolve the protest through an informal settlement or a formal ARB hearing.

According to Wilbanks, the taxpayer liaison, many taxpayers don’t understand the protest process well and fail to adhere to procedural or evidentiary standards that would help their case. By the time they come to him, it’s often too late for him to do anything to help them.

TCAD is trying to reduce taxpayer grievances on the front-end by providing educational webinars about the process. “We will be ramping up our taxpayer outreach program. We will be repeating the same series that we did last year (with some updates),” Crigler said.

The district’s webinars aim to help property owners understand their appraisal notice, the protest process, and exemptions, including recent changes to the Tax Code. All of the webinars will be put on the TCAD website, which itself was recently overhauled.

Crigler praised TCAD Communications Officer Cynthia Martinez for her role in the effort, crediting her for a public information award that the district received from the International Association of Assessing Officers (IAAO). The IAAO award was in recognition for TCAD’s 2021 webinar series, an initiative that came largely in response to the pandemic, which curtailed TCAD’s normal in-person outreach efforts.

Trust indicators: Bulldog reporter Daniel Van Oudenaren is a journalist with 12 years experience in local, state, and international reporting.

Who funds this work? This report was made possible by contributions to The Austin Bulldog, which operates as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit for investigative reporting in the public interest. You can help support this independent coverage by making a tax-deductible contribution. Contributions made by December 31, 2021, will the TRIPLED by matching national and local partners.

Related documents:

TCAD meeting agenda, December 15, 2021

TCAD agenda backup, December 15, 2021

TCAD legislative advocacy, August 30, 2021

Related Bulldog coverage:

Appraisal rolls certified on time…for a change, December 13, 2021

TCAD pares back budget hike to 12.5 percent, June 10, 2021

TCAD asking for 24 percent budget jump, May 26, 2021

Appraisal Review Board gets new leader, finally, April 9, 2021

Appraisal Review Board chair resigns, March 18, 2021

Appraisal Review Board member rebuts criticisms, January 7, 2021

TCAD board hammers ARB chair over costs, delay, December 15, 2020

TCAD 2021 budget approved for $20.2 million, September 8, 2020

COVID-19 plans for appraisal review board hearings, June 1, 2020s

Deadline for property value protests this Friday, May 11, 2020

Protesting property values during COVID-19 emergency, April 15, 2020

Chief appraiser on a losing streak, March 17, 2020

TCAD board still debating 2020 protest process, January 14, 2020

TCAD board rewards chief appraiser, December 19, 2019

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 Catherine Tower lawsuits at cost of nearly $850,000, July 23, 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

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