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Travis County investigating appraisal inequities

Thursday, July 31, 2014 by Beth Cortez-Neavel

Travis County is assembling work groups to investigate alleged inequities in the state property tax appraisal system.

Intergovernmental Relations Coordinator Deece Eckstein has plans to fulfill the mandate from the court to create the working groups. They include getting an impartial analysis of the accuracy of commercial and industrial property appraisals in Travis County and collaborating with other taxing entities – like the City of Austin, Central Health and the Austin Independent School District – to look for remedies as well.

Although Austin’s population growth has resulted in higher property tax bills overall, many homeowners say the state-mandated appraisal system is broken.

According to Chief Appraiser Marya Crigler, high-end residential properties and commercial properties are difficult to properly value because Texas does not mandate property sales disclosures. Some citizens say the burden of paying for services has shifted to low- and middle-income homeowners through lowball commercial property valuation and an unfair appraisal protest process full of loopholes.

Both the city and the county declined the opportunity to file a challenge petition to the Travis Central Appraisal District earlier this summer, opting instead to ask more questions and do more in-depth research on potential legislative and legal options.
The most fundamental question, Eckstein said, is whether the perceived inequity truly exists.

“There’s a lot of anxiety about this issue, there’s a lot of discussion,” Eckstein said. “Depending on what your sources are, you can see there’s some catastrophic failure of the system, or the system works perfectly, and all opinions in between.”

The real goal, Eckstein said, was to give the county a more factual analysis with which to move forward.

“Let’s try to cut through a lot of the rhetoric on both sides and see if we can shape some understanding of what the real issues are, what options we have,” he said.

The first working group, a Committee on Property Appraisal and Tax Reform, will include 10 to 12 civic, business, neighborhood and governmental leaders from throughout the county. Members would have a working knowledge and some experience with the tax appraisal process, Eckstein said.

After a round of meetings, the committee will bring back recommendations to the court. The process is time-sensitive, especially if the court wants to attempt to get any bills filed for the 84th Legislative session by March 13, 2015, deadline.

The second work group, a Technical Advisory Committee, will be eight to 10 representatives from local government, commercial real estate, the appraisal district and the legislature. They will examine best practices and recommending any statutory options.

Eckstein plans to have the recommendations for committee group members by early to mid-August.

The groups’ analysis will examine alleged appraisal valuation inequities and may be used when presenting to the legislature. County Judge Sam Biscoe Biscoe also asked that IGR collaborate with other local taxing entities to get funding to hire a data analyst and do the study.

The county will also work with other urban counties to look for inequalities in the state appraisal system and to work on potential legal and legislative remedies. Pct. 4 Commissioner Margaret Gómez said that a lawsuit, for her, would be the last resort.

Another main question, she pointed out, is the reason why the County is looking into the appraisal system in the first place: whether any of these recommendations will lead to more affordability for the Travis County taxpayer.

“That’s going to be the tricky part,” Eckstein said. “I’m hopeful that once we have a clear picture of the real facts and what the situation is … that there will be an effect down the road of easing affordability concerns, but in the research I’ve done, I would have very modest expectations.”

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