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Commissioners scrap petition to challenge commercial appraisals

Wednesday, June 11, 2014 by Beth Cortez-Neavel

Over the past two weeks, there has been a quickly escalating debate over the whether the Travis County Commissioner Court should file a challenge petition with the Travis Central Appraisal District regarding the undervaluation of county commercial properties.


However, after a long day in court, and a drawn-out executive session, the Commissioner’s Court decided to scrap the petition in favor of working more closely with local and statewide government and civic leaders to figure out solutions for the 2015 session of the Texas Legislature. Commissioner Bruce Todd made the motion, which won unanimous support with Commissioner Margaret Gómez absent. (There has been an addition to this paragraph.)


Commissioners heard more than two hours of testimony both for and against the petition Tuesday. The Commissioner’s Court was the first local government to take up the property tax issue, although Harris County has approved a motion to file a petition challenging its appraisal district’s low-ball of vacant commercial lots. Some are calling it more of a symbolic gesture.


Leroy Nellis, former County Executive and Austin-area real estate agent gave counsel against moving forward with the petition. 


“A challenge does not get you to where you need to be. We need substantial change in the legislature,” he said.


Brigid Shea, the Democratic nominee for Pct. 2 County Commissioner, has been leading a community effort to show support for the petition.


“I have never seen an issue where people are as frightened and as angry,” she told the court. “I think you have a historical moment here. We will have a more conservative legislature and in some cases leadership in that body who are openly hostile to government.”


It’s a Legislature that Shea and others say will work toward limiting local government and further reducing the revenue to provide basic services like roads, schools, police and parks.


State Sen. Kirk Watson is working toward a legislative solution, as he said via email Tuesday. However, there’s concern his agenda won’t get very far through what is looking to be an extremely conservative legislature next session.


Shea told the Monitor that she’s expecting the Legislature to handle this issue the way it handled the school finance issue. “They’ve refused to do their constitutional duty to fully fund the schools and they’ve been forced by the courts to try and remedy it. That’s why I think it’s so important for the commissioners to consider legal action,” she said. 


Despite citizen protests, the Court moved to create task forces to work on putting pressure on the legislature.


The Intergovernmental Relations staff will work with the county auditor and planning and budget office to create a workgroup of all major taxing units in Travis County and the business and real estate community to eke out legislative and legal remedies for inequities in the property appraisal system. The IGR will also work with other Texas urban counties to explore legislative remedies. Shea said she was “disappointed that they did not add the people who are hurting the worst, the homeowners.”


The court approved the purchasing staff to contract out for an impartial analysis of the commercial and industrial appraisals in Travis County.


“Hopefully we can eliminate some of the inequity in that distribution of power in how those things are done,” said Deece Eckstein, IGR Coordinator. But he’s also skeptical of this approach.


“There’s a level of accountability at local government that you don’t get at state government,” he told the Monitor. “I hope that the civic community and the business community in Austin will step up and realize that it’s in everybody’s interest to have a fair system that people can believe in and that they will take responsibility for. That’s really going to be our political challenge going into a legislative session.”


According to data from the appraiser’s office, between 2013 and 2014 there has been a 15 percent increase in property valuations. Chief Appraiser Marya Crigler said that Austin has just over a two-month supply of housing inventory. Six month’s worth is considered a stable supply for a city the size of Austin. Crigler said the city doesn’t have enough supply to meet the demand of residents already living here, plus the 110 people moving to Austin every day.


Crigler said the average sales price of residential housing has doubled since 2003, from between $100,000 and $160,000 to between $200,000 and $400,000 in 2013.


Crigler said the type of attention they’re seeing surrounding property taxes is unusual for the appraisal district. “We have never seen a grassroots movement for reform of this nature,” she said. “We welcome the attention that it’s getting. Because there are some issues that we feel, as the appraisal district, we need help addressing.”


One of the main issues is the appraisal district’s difficulty getting property sales information to help with the appraisal process. Texas is a non-sales disclosure state, meaning there is no law requiring that real estate sales data be disclosed to governmental bodies.


The Austin City Council is slated to hear three resolutions, sponsored by Council Member Kathie Tovo Thursday, including a resolution considering a city petition that mimics the original county petition in question.

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