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County, state candidates continue to push for property tax reform

Monday, July 21, 2014 by Beth Cortez-Neavel

Local governments need to look at their non-taxed property and sell it back into private hands if it is underused, according to Sarah Eckhardt, Democratic candidate for Travis County Judge. Eckhardt told a property tax town hall audience Friday that this would put money back into local government coffers through both the sale of property and the property getting back onto the tax rolls.

“I believe that on a regular basis, perhaps on a five-year cycle, we should analyze all the property that we own to make sure that we’re maximally utilizing it,” Eckhardt told the Monitor after the tax forum. “I think that we, as a government, must be much more mindful of the fact that we have almost a zero carrying cost for property, unlike the private sector. We need to do a much better job at making sure that we are not holding property off the tax rolls and cutting our nose off to spite our faces.”

To date, the City of Austin owns more than 3,000 non-taxed properties and Travis County owns roughly such 1,000 properties, according to the Travis Central Appraisal District’s property search database. Many government-owned properties are exempt from property taxes under the Texas Government Code.

A better use for a county-owned property, Eckhardt said, would be to sell the gas station at 1000 North Lamar Blvd, which is used predominantly to fill up the county’s fleet services and sheriffs’ department vehicles.

“I don’t believe… that there is great utility in owning that gas station,” she said. “But that is an extremely valuable piece of property from a taxation perspective and in private hands would generate a considerable amount of private revenue as well as tax (revenue). So I don’t think that this is really the best use of that piece of property.”

Eckhardt said she would rather use that spot for affordable housing than a gas station and pointed out that the county is not using the “airspace,” or room to build a multiple-story structure.

Brigid Shea, Travis Pct. 2 Commissioner Democratic candidate, and Mike Collier, Democratic candidate for state Comptroller, headlined the forum at the Travis County Democratic Party headquarters. Each spoke about what they call a broken state appraisal process and then answered questions from an audience almost evenly divided between voters and city or county candidates.

Earlier this summer, Shea spearheaded local efforts to protest rising residential property taxes and encourage local government to take action.

There has been public opposition to the state-set appraisal process for its low valuations of commercial property, appraisal protest loopholes and an unbalanced burden on mid- and low-income property owners to pay for county and city services.

Both the county and the city held off filing protests with the Travis Central Appraisal District on low commercial property valuations, but formed work groups to look at legislative and legal options to changing the system.

“If citizens see that they have a choice to fix a broken system versus either continue a gross inequity or substitute an even worse and more unfair tax, you’re going to choose to fix the broken system,” Shea said. “Because at the end of the day people want the quality of life in their communities, and that’s what the tax revenue pays for.”

Collier said that the changes would have to come at the legislative level, over which the Comptroller has some influence, but not voting power. However, he said, the ultimate responsibility to change the system is on the voters.

“The comptroller can gather the information, can educate appraisers in terms of methods and practices, can educate Texans in terms of how it works and can educate the legislature in terms of what steps need to be made to perfect it,” he said. “An energetic, engaged, determined comptroller can influence the outcome in that respect.”

Collier said he would continue raise the issue of fixing the appraisal system in a 35-city campaign tour across the state.

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