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Appraisal District chief emphasizes differences with Travis County

Thursday, May 29, 2014 by Beth Cortez-Neavel

The Travis County Commissioner’s Court got a lesson in the inner workings of the Travis Central Appraisal District Tuesday. The Commissioner’s Court has been criticized recently for seemingly washing its hands of the public’s outcry at the steep rise in property taxes and property appraisal rates, especially in the fast-growing Austin metro area.


However, both Pct. 4 Commissioner Margaret Gómez and Marya Crigler, chief appraiser for the district, clarified during the meeting that the two governmental organizations are completely separate entities.


In 1979, the Texas Legislature mandated that each county in the state create a separate appraisal district, which would be responsible for setting the taxable value of properties without politics getting involved.


The Commissioners Court is the chief policymaking and administrative branch of county government, and can set tax rates, determine county fees and develop and approve the county budget. However, the Court does not have control over any part of the appraisal process.


Pct. 1 Commissioner Ron Davis requested the presentation because of what he said was misinformation flying around about the appraisal process. “I hope after this particular presentation… there will be a clearer understanding of what’s really happening, of what’s taking place in a particularly hot market in Travis County, which has had an impact on property taxes,” Davis said.


Gómez also noted that even the name of the appraisal district is confusing to the public. Taxpayers often misunderstands the “C” in TCAD, reading it as the Travis County Appraisal District, instead of the Travis Central Appraisal District, which then wrongly links the appraisal district back to county government.


Even County Judge Sam Biscoe slipped up when introducing the appraisal district during the meeting.


Another hurdle TCAD faces in the rising housing market is a barrier to the access of information. Texas does not mandate that real estate transactions be made available to the appraisal district. Instead, TCAD has to pull together its own data to make a market value estimate on property.


“We get the information through a lot of legwork,” Crigler said.


TCAD sends out sales surveys and letters to property owners requesting that they self-report, Crigler said, adding that they try to mine as much public data as they can find. TCAD also gets a lot of its information through the appraisal appeals process, where property owners disgruntled with their appraisal contest the value.


There are 11 non-sales disclosure states in the U.S., but even out of those states, five offer at least some information to their governmental bodies. Texas is not one of those.


“It’s a huge obstacle to our ability to do our job and do it efficiently and do it with a higher level of accuracy and precision,” Crigler said.


Pair the confusion of responsibility and little access to information with Austin’s burgeoning population growth.


Both Forbes and Bloomberg News rank Austin at the top their lists of American Boomtowns, the Business Journal has ranked Austin economy number one, and Austin was the only city in the nation with a five-year job growth rate in the double digits, at 11 percent.


Crigler said the housing market has been ranked number five among the 10 healthiest markets in 2013 and that the demand for homes here continues to outstrip supply, placing increased upward pressure on sales prices.


For example, she said she was surprised to discover that more than 46 percent of all homes placed on sale in February 2014 sold within two weeks.


“The demand continues to outstrip the supply, placing an increased upward sales on prices,” she said. “We have 110 people moving in to Austin every day… and that puts upward pressure on those housing prices.”


Crigler said the highest value increases are in the urban core of the city, and there are more apartments units being developed than single-family housing units.


“Our appraisals are reflecting what’s happening in the Austin market,” Crigler said. “The Austin market is very strong at this time.”

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