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Travis appraiser says high-end residences could be undervalued

Tuesday, July 1, 2014 by Beth Cortez-Neavel

Concerns over the local property tax process continued to surface Saturday afternoon at an informational forum. There, Travis Chief Appraiser Marya Crigler said that, in addition to wide concern that commercial property is undervalued, there is also a potential for high-end residential housing to be undervalued. City Council District 1 candidate Ora Houston hosted the forum.


“I’ve got a really good solid amount of information to develop models on middle income property, but for the highest of the high-end properties I don’t have a lot of sale information. A lot of that information we cannot get those property owners to self-disclose to us and it’s really difficult to find that information from other sources so it makes it difficult for us to appraise the highest of the high end properties,” Crigler told the Monitor after the forum.


Also at the forum Crigler reiterated Texas’ lack of sales disclosure laws hampers appraisals. Attorney and former County Judge Bill Aleshire joined activist Brian Rodgers in offering their familiar views on commercial property incentives and the lack of exemptions at the city level.


The Travis Central Appraisal District, county government and city government have come under fire lately thanks to high property tax bills for the 2014 Fiscal Year. Various candidates have been organizing around the issue to get more solid solutions and build up their campaign platforms.


Some argue that Austin’s fast-paced growth and high housing turnover have resulted in higher property tax bills for all taxable entities. However, some residential property owners are grumbling that the overall state-set appraisal process is at fault for its low valuations of commercial property and loopholes for commercial property owners to evade paying their share for city infrastructure and services. Under this argument, the majority of the taxes for municipal services unfairly are pushed to the residential taxpayer. This, they say, is pushing longtime Austin residents out of the city limits.


Crigler said appraising the taxable value of a property – whether residential, commercial or other – is made difficult by Texas’ status as a non-sales disclosure state. Public outcry has focused on the estimated 40 percent tax discount commercial properties are receiving because they do not have to disclose their market value to TCAD. The appraisal district has to make an educated guess as to the value of the property.


A quick search through a few luxury home real estate agent sites, and a comparison with the 2014 appraisal information found on the TCAD site, confirms some houses in more affluent areas of the county are selling for a few hundred thousand dollars more than they’re listed as worth by TCAD.


On top of that, Crigler said about 90 percent of commercial property owners protest that their appraisal value is too high. There is a trend of commercial property owners successfully protesting appraisal valuations by bringing in information that their properties in other counties are not being appraised at a comparable rate in Travis County, and that TCAD is appraising them too high.


“I don’t think that is truly a good comparable, particularly when you’re talking about retail property. We’ve got lots of retail property in Travis County. If it was something unique and there’s only one or two of them in each county, then perhaps you might want to consider a broader population,” Crigler said. “In Travis County, I think we should be comparing it to Travis County.”


Candidate Houston moderated the panel but did not take a position on tax issues. “I needed to hear this conversation today,” she said. “I have to digest the information before I’m ready to speak on (tax exemptions). I listened really intently to what people were saying and I’ll go home and process.”


She added that she was pleased with the diversity of thought and the engaging questions from the audience, and said that, if elected, she looks forward to holding more informative community forums in the district such as these.


“Traditionally the community that’s engaged (by city politicians) are the people downtown and the people in certain parts of the city,” she said. “And yet they keep saying we’ve got this robust community engagement. Well, if it doesn’t look like what we saw this afternoon, that’s not robust.”


A gender, age and ethnically diverse group of about 30 to 35 district residents and City Council candidates attended the forum. Republican Travis County Judge candidate Mike McNamara was also there.

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