Travis two-step a dance property owners won’t enjoy

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Face-to-face property value protests will be called “informal conferences” and property owners may wait two weeks to find out if TCAD lowered the value

After 2019’s disastrous process for addressing value disputes between the Travis Central Appraisal District (TCAD) and property owners—which involved cutting off all in-person communications with staff appraisers—the agency will once again allow property owners or their agents to meet face-to-face with staff appraisers.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the TCAD board’s micromanagement of the process is pretty near guaranteed to create a new kind of dissatisfaction among property owners who come in, sit with an appraiser, and present evidence as to why their property value should be lowered.

What’s the rub?

The appraisers that property owners meet with in “informal conferences” will not be allowed to make an immediate decision about whether to adjust the figure contained in the Notice of Appraised Value that property owners received in the mail.

In the 2018 protest season and years before that, staff appraisers were always empowered to make on-the-spot decisions to lower a property value if the property owner or agent’s evidence was persuasive. Property tax consulting firms have said that appraisal districts all over the state allow the staff appraiser to provide an immediate answer about any adjustments to a property’s value.

But not TCAD, not now.

The trust previously placed in staff appraisers to make those decisions has been withdrawn.

What replaces that trust is a system that might have made Rube Goldberg proud. The late cartoonist (1883-1970) and inventor of zany contraptions known as “Rube Goldberg Machines” was a master of drawing plans for “accomplishing by complex means what seemingly could be done simply.”

TCAD board approves new rules

Instead of getting an immediate value decision (to lower or not lower the value), under this newly hatched scheme property owners might have to wait as long as two weeks to find out whether TCAD will reduce the property value and, if so, by how much.

At its January 21 meeting, the TCAD Board of Directors voted 7-1 to approve these procedures with board member Anthony Nguyen opposed and board member Eleanor Powell absent.

Anthony Nguyen

During the discussion in a meeting that lasted 42 minutes, Nguyen, who was appointed to the board to represent East Travis County in 2018, pointed out that informal protests conducted in the years before 2019, property owners could meet with a staff appraiser and get an immediate decision about any value adjustment. He said delaying that decision is not a good idea.

“I really don’t think that’s what we should be doing. These are certified appraisers. They have a Code of Ethics to abide by,” he said. “I think its going to be problematic. It’s more complicated.”

As always, property owners will have the right to reject any settlement offer TCAD might make and go to a formal protest hearing before the Appraisal Review Board.

In fact, property owners can bypass the informal conference entirely and present their case before the Appraisal Review Board that will convene around June 1, 2020.

Delayed decision a sure-fire disappointment

So, if the staff appraiser you sit with isn’t allowed to make a value decision, who is?

The TCAD Board of Directors approved a plan that would require a team of “settlement offer reviewers” to examine:

  • Evidence supplied by the property owner (or agent),
  • The appraiser’s notes from the informal conference, and
  • The staff appraiser’s recommended value.

Only then will a reviewer decide what appears to be an accurate property value. If an offer will be made to lower the property value (a “settlement offer”), then the offer will be conveyed to the property owner.

How long will that take?

This is an entirely new system that’s been conceived to conform to the board’s preferences expressed in previous meetings. But the new system actually hasn’t been established, so it isn’t ready to operate. How long property owners might actually wait for an offer can’t be guaranteed.

That said, the goal is to provide the settlement offer as soon as possible. The plan calls for providing settlement offers for all informal conferences conducted in a given week by Friday of the following week.

To be more specific, if you have an informal conference on a Monday you will not be able to obtain access to the value decision for 12 days—and that’s if the decision-train runs on schedule.

How will property owners be notified?

Settlement offers will be delivered to property owners via email, telephone, or mail, depending on the owner’s preference and compliance with procedures to be established for each method of notification.

Email offers—After the settlement offer reviewer has determined how much, if any, to lower the property value, an email will be sent  to the email address provided by the property owner. The email will contain the offer and a link the owner can use to accept the offer.

According to the plan, no such email system currently exists. Implementation will depend on developing software, buying additional equipment, plus installation and configuration. (Not to mention training, because it’s not in the plan.)

Phone offers—To get a settlement offer on your telephone, TCAD intends to develop a process similar to how you activate a new credit card. Property owners must call TCAD from the telephone number they provided in advance, and enter a property account number. The phone system will then give them the informal settlement offer and the opportunity to press a button to accept.

But, same as the conditions to implement the email system of delivering offers, no such system exists.

USPS mail—“Property owners may request to have the informal settlement offer mailed to them by calling the Customer Service Department on Friday of the following week. An informal settlement offer form will be mailed and the property owner must sign and return the form to the appraisal district. They may return in (sic) via mail or drop it off at the appraisal district in person.”

All these new procedures involve higher costs and extraordinary delay in getting a value decision. All because the board has decided to take decisions out of the hands of staff appraisers.

What’s driving change to a more onerous process?

Ryan Steglich

These radical procedural changes all grew out of a one-page recommendation made by Board Member Ryan Steglich December 14, 2019. He was absent at that meeting, but his ideas were discussed then and at the board meetings of January 13 and January 21, 2020.

Austin ISD appointed Steglich to the TCAD board in 2019, making him and one other (Felipe Ulloa) the least experienced board members.

“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. (His emphasis.)

“Moving this ability to change appraised value to a uniform process with multiple layers of oversight outside of a face-to-face meeting makes for a fairer and more transparent process for all property owners,” he wrote.

His recommendation ended by saying, “Forcing an appraiser to make unilateral valuation changes while in a potentially adversarial face-to-face meeting creates a system ripe for abuse. Let’s have a system that is consistent, transparent and fair to all taxpayers.”

Blanca Zamora-Garcia

Board Member Blanca Zamora-Garcia, who was appointed by the City of Austin and has been on the board since 1998, pushed back against Steglich’s proposal at the January 13, 2020, meeting.

She asked him, “Have you been to an informal meeting (with a staff appraiser)?

To which he replied, “No, but I’ve heard stories.”

But that didn’t stop him for pushing for procedures that are going to cost more, take more time, and once again increase the number of property owner complaints about an unduly complicated way of doing business.

Massive public education outreach planned

To help the public get a handle on how all these changes will affect property owners and their agents, TCAD has laid plans for getting the word out through every means possible, including local media; extensive social media; in-person efforts through local meetings; training of local Realtors; and working with elected officials to identify opportunities to distribute information.

In addition, on Fridays during May, TCAD plans to operate a pilot program to host off-site informal meetings with property owners at community centers in Del Valle, Jonestown, Oak Hill, and Pflugerville.

To that original plan, at the request of Zamora-Garcia, information meetings will also be hosted in southeast Austin (Dove Springs), northeast Austin (Asian-American or Gus Garcia facilities), and in Manor.

Get in line, wait your turn

TCAD plans to mail Notices of Appraised Values to property owners by April 1, 2020, and hopes that property owners who wish to protest their valuations will immediately start coming in for informal conferences.

Property owners or their agents who wish to protest TCAD’s valuation will be able to submit evidence to support a protested value via an online portal or by bringing it in for an informal conference with a staff appraiser.

Informal conferences are slated to be held at TCAD’s main office at 8314 Cross Park Drive in northeast Austin, Monday through Friday in April 2020 and Monday through Thursday in May 2020.

The TCAD hours of operation will be 7:45am through 4:45pm.

Property owners must check in on arrival and will be allowed to discuss up to five properties at a time. During check-in, evidence not previously uploaded through TCAD’s online portal will be scanned to create an electronic record for the agency’s Computer-Assisted Mass Appraisal (CAMA) system software before meeting with an appraiser.

Property owners who just drop in may run into significant delays before getting to sit with an appraiser. Walk-ins will be served on a first-come, first-serve basis.

To reduce the possibility of encountering long waits, TCAD will explore buying a reservation system similar to that used by the Texas Department of Public Safety (Get In Line, Online) and the Travis County Tax Office (QMatic Online Appointments).

A system like this would allow a property owner or agent to reserve a time-slot online. Then, when they arrive at TCAD’s offices, they will be given priority and processed as close to their reserved time as possible. Implementation of a reservation system is dependent on the cost of software, additional equipment required, installation and configuration.

The final day for informal conferences at TCAD offices will be Saturday May 30 from 8am to 4pm.

ARB process provides a second chance

Those who do not accept a settlement offer as a result of the informal conference will be able to plead their case again through a formal hearing before the Appraisal Review Board (ARB).

Formal ARB hearings are scheduled to start around June 1, 2020. The ARB consists of 150 people appointed by a state district judge and trained by people approved by the State Comptroller.

ARB protest hearings are conducted by three-member panels who listen to the evidence presented by TCAD’s appraiser and the property owner (or owner’s agent), then immediately render a value decision.

One last opportunity lower a property value

Property owners who are not satisfied with the ARB value decision may file a lawsuit in district court, enter binding arbitration, or, for properties the ARB has determined a value to be more than $1 million, request an administrative hearing before the State Office of Administrative Hearings.

The State Comptroller’s website provides details about all three of these options.

Links to related documents:

2020 Informal Meeting Logistics and Communication Plan, January 21, 2020 (5 pages)

Ryan Steglich Informal Review Recommendation, December 14, 2019 (1 page)

Related Bulldog coverage:

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

Appraisal review board and appraisal district sued, January 6, 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

Are Austin’s Property Taxes Fair and Equitable? July 30, 2010

Trust indicators:

Photo of Ken MartinKen 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.

Email [email protected].

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