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Travis Commissioners hear TCAD, legislative issues

Thursday, January 29, 2015 by Mark Richardson

Property tax relief is high on the agenda for the Texas Legislature this session, and Travis County is getting its ducks in a row to follow the issue over the next few months. Along that line, it heard updates from the Travis Central Appraisal District and the county’s legislative liaison staff Tuesday.

Travis County Commissioners heard Marya Crigler, chief appraiser for TCAD, and Deece Eckstein, Travis County’s intergovernmental relations officer.

Travis County taxpayers have complained in recent months that they are bearing an unfair burden of property taxes because of the Travis Central Appraisal District’s handling of commercial properties. Through appeals and lawsuits, many commercial property owners have succeeded in having their tax bills cut by as much as half, while most residential property owners do not have time or money to challenge their appraisals in a similar fashion.

According to Crigler, her agency is inundated with lawsuits from commercial property owners, which are not only taking up a lot of the agency’s time but also draining its resources.

“One of the things that we have that is a major concern for us is litigation and the cost of litigation,” Crigler said. “We came back and made a request for additional money so they could better defend and afford to defend in court some of the litigation cases we have. Just to report to you, our lawsuit volume has increased since 2013. We had 666 suits filed in 2014 compared with 513 filed in 2013.”

Crigler said fewer than 20 of the suits in 2014 were from residential property owners, meaning the rest were commercial properties. She said TCAD sought and received an attorney general’s opinion to allow them to open a reserve account to help cover the cost of litigation and to defend their appraisals. They have added three additional law firms to cover the litigation load.

She said many of the commercial property owners have deep pockets and can outspend her agency in court.

Crigler also said that TCAD has hired two consultants who are evaluating the agency’s operations, similar to a proposal by Commissioners last year to hire an outside firm, which the court rejected.

“We wanted to have somebody independent, and we picked two independent people,” she said. “They are both from out of state. They don’t have any preconceived notions, (so they can) come in and objectively look at how do we do our appraisals and give us an honest assessment.”

Crigler said that if there were any changes TCAD needs to make, the consultants’ assessment would guide them through the process.

Crigler said another major challenge to her agency is getting better market information about the properties it appraises. She said TCAD is in the process of hiring research specialists and looking to purchase accurate market information.

State law currently does not allow real estate firms to report sales figures to the appraisal district, and Crigler said any agent caught doing so risked being blackballed from the market. She said the legislature needs to change that.

Commissioner Brigid Shea said getting legislative change is critical to resolving the issues.

“I think it’s really crucial for people to understand that we have to have a better way of getting this information,” Shea said. “Within the industry itself, if the practice is to penalize brokers who legally can provide this information, I think we need to have conversations with the real estate industry itself.”

Legislative liaison Eckstein told Commissioners that there are two key bills filed in the current legislature, SB280 and SB281, which address reforming the property appraisal process in Texas, as well as HB490 and HJR57, which address homestead exemptions.

SB280 would attempt to make the property appraisal appeals process more fair by limiting comparison properties to comparable structures in the same district. SB281 would force a property owner appealing an appraisal to suggest a proposed alternative value for the property that must be backed with evidence.

HB490 and HJR57 would allow taxing authorities such as Travis County to set a homestead exemption as a percentage of the property’s value, while also setting a maximum dollar amount for exemptions.

Eckstein said a change in Senate rules — changing the two-thirds rule to bring up legislation to a three-fifths rule — could complicate getting the bills to the floor.

“Where that comes into play from time to time — and I should emphasize the vast majority of the legislation that the Senate considers and acts on really doesn’t break down on party lines — but from time to time, there are bills that do have some kind of party breakdown or philosophical breakdown,” Eckstein said. “Under the two-thirds rule, they (Democrats) would have been able to block bills. Under the three-fifths rule, their ability to do that is gone.”

Eckstein said bill hearings committees in both the House and Senate will probably not start for two or three weeks, and that will give him time to assess how the rule changes might affect the bills.

Commissioners approved adding the bills to their legislative agenda.





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