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Austin relocates tax appraisal challenge

Friday, June 19, 2015 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

While the city of Austin will continue to pursue its challenge of the Travis Central Appraisal District’s valuation of commercial properties, it has chosen a new venue for the fight.

Mayor Steve Adler said during yesterday’s City Council meeting that city legal staff will move their challenge from the Appraisal Review Board to a district court, thereby avoiding a delay in the certification of the tax roll, which could have rippled through the budget processes of the county’s 100-odd taxing entities. A delayed tax roll would have meant postponing tax rates, and cities such as Cedar Park and Round Rock might have had to go into budget sessions with a small blinder.

“The parties (city lawyers and appraisal lawyers) are working cooperatively to ensure both that the challenge can be prosecuted and heard and evaluated and decided, and that the appraisal roll will be validated with the 2015 values in a timely way for all the tax amenities,” said Adler from the dais.

In mid-May, the city released a report showing that between 2012 and 2014, commercial properties were undervalued by an average of 47 percent. The result, many argue, is that residential taxpayers were responsible for the difference.

The plan, explained Adler, is to retract the city’s challenge on Monday, when the challenge is set to be heard by the Appraisal Review Board. There will then be no pending challenge, and the certification of the tax roll can proceed without hiccup.

But Deputy Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo told the Austin Monitor that the challenge has already caused some delays, regardless of future action. The tax roll certification will be delayed a bit, and rather than taking place on July 20, it will most likely happen by the end of August.

Cedar Park Mayor Matt Powell said it is imperative that his city see the tax roll certified by that time.

“We absolutely need the certified tax roll from Travis County by the end of August, which is already later than it is supposed to be available to us, to ensure a comprehensive, thoughtful, and public budget process,” Powell wrote in an email to the Monitor. “Once we have a firm commitment that this date can be met by Travis County — or even better, an earlier date — we will feel a lot better about the situation.”

Powell said he had not heard about the city of Austin’s decision to challenge the valuation through the district court, but thought it was a “positive development.”

Round Rock City Council Member Frank Leffingwell said that although the challenge process so far has delayed the certification by a month, the city will still have time to assess the effects of the tax roll in its budget. “While that will delay our normal tax rate adoption process, the City will still be able to complete our tax and budget adoption before October 1,” wrote Leffingwell in an email to the Monitor.

Van Eenoo said the city would wait until after the tax roll had been certified to file its challenge in district court to ensure there are no additional delays.

Council members assured residents on Thursday that this new blueprint does not soften the city’s intention of challenging the tax appraisal.

“I want to ensure those of you who have been watching this and are interested in seeing the city move forward with a challenge to commercial valuations (that) what you’ve just heard doesn’t in any means mean that we are not moving forward,” said Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo. “It is for me a high priority to see the city move forward with challenging the commercial property valuations.”

Adler said that when he sat down with representatives from several Travis County taxing entities to consider the pros and cons of Austin’s challenge, he was able to discern two messages: Do not affect entities’ abilities to write their budgets, and good luck.

“(They said) godspeed on trying to raise this issue, because no other city that I was aware of had actually gotten to this point and was willing to proceed,” said Adler.

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