Thursday, May 21, 2015 by Sunny Sone

Property tax system messed up; nobody happy

A property tax appraisal forum hosted by Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea on Tuesday told two sides of the same story: No one is happy with the property tax system.

The forum, Shea’s second, included a panel of city officials and tax experts: Mayor Steve Adler, Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, Travis County Tax Collector-Assessor Bruce Elfant, Travis Central Appraisal District Chief Appraiser Marya Crigler, fiscal analyst Dick Levine, and Leigh Murrin, a representative from the property tax reform group Real Values for Texas.

The forum gave frustrated property owners a chance to air out grievances and allowed tax representatives to present their problems. For the appraisers, the problem is a lack of good data. For homeowners, the problem is overvaluation stemming from incorrect appraisals.

The forum followed the release of a city report that said the appraisal district undervalued commercial property by an average of 47 percent from 2012 to 2014. In response, City Council will be considering a petition challenging the appraisal district’s commercial valuations at its next two meetings.

“We don’t see this as an adversarial exercise,” Adler said. “I believe we are all of the same angle in wanting to ensure that the property tax system in Travis County is implemented and executed fairly.”

Most of the data used for the city’s analysis is not available to the appraisal district during appraisals. Crigler said that she and her team appraise properties with limited data, and that this issue affects almost every step of the tax assessment process. Most notably, the appraisal district is not allowed to use sales data in their analyses.

“That is crazy, and that is bad public policy,” Elfant said of the issue.

Crigler said this data would make the biggest difference in the accuracy of appraisals.

The appraisal district’s richest data become available after the appraisal is complete: When property owners protest their taxes, they bring information about their property to prove their point. That information is then logged for the following year.

If the protest is declined, property owners and the district face another hurdle. Property owners can choose to sue the district and rack up attorney’s fees. If the district loses, it has to pay both the plaintiff’s and its own fees.

Gentrification also skews data. Houses on the East Side are no longer comparable with one another, which results in higher property taxes for lower-valued properties. Crigler said comparable properties are already given too broad a definition. Property owners can compare their taxes to very different homes, even in other states.

Crigler and others called for comprehensive property tax reform from the Texas Legislature. She noted that several of her own attempts to introduce reform have stalled.

Photo by, licensed under Creative Commons

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

Travis Central Appraisal District: The tax appraisal district for Travis County.

Travis County Commissioners Court: The legislative body for Travis County. It includes representatives from the four Travis County Precincts, as well as the County Judge. The County Judge serves as the chair of the Court.

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