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Travis County takes no action on appraisals

Monday, June 1, 2015 by Caleb Pritchard

Travis County Commissioners voted on Friday to do nothing.

That was the decision in a rare special voting session called to address the city of Austin’s decision to challenge commercial property tax appraisals.

The commissioners had before them three options: file their own challenge of the appraisals, direct county attorneys to participate in the city’s challenge or do nothing. In the end, on a motion floated by Commissioner Ron Davis, they voted 3-2 for option No. 3. County Judge Sarah Eckhardt and Commissioner Brigid Shea voted against the substitute motion, which replaced their own attempt to allow county attorneys to help the city. Commissioners Gerald Daugherty and Margaret Gómez joined Davis in opting to keep the county on the sidelines.

After the meeting, Shea slammed the choice for inaction and told the Austin Monitor that the decision left her “appalled.”

“This community is in absolute pain over the skyrocketing cost of living, the most pressing being housing,” Shea said. “And one of the structural flaws that’s contributing to a higher cost of living is the fact that commercial properties are not paying their fair share, so an unfair burden is being pushed onto homeowners. I cannot fathom why my colleagues would vote to do nothing.”

During the meeting, Davis said it’s up to the city to ease the burden on homeowners by matching the county’s 20-percent homestead exemption.

“I’m not going to stand in the way of their challenge. No way I’m going to do that,” Davis said. “But I also think the city of Austin should be fair to the persons here who have homesteads and give them a homestead exemption even if it’s in 5 percent increments. Now that is immediate tax relief.”

Eckhardt scheduled the Friday session to quickly respond to City Council’s decision on Thursday to file a petition to challenge Travis Central Appraisal District’s valuation of commercial properties. According to a report released by the city on May 19, TCAD had erroneously low-balled commercial properties by an average of 47 percent from 2012 to 2014.

Supporters of the challenge say the undervaluation has put an extra burden on residential taxpayers. However, there is no guarantee that the challenge will result in lower residential tax bills. Furthermore, a delay in the certification of appraisals could throw a wrench in the budget-making processes going on in the communities that rely on TCAD.

Cedar Park Council Member Corbin Van Arsdale spoke before the commissioners on Friday to underscore those concerns. He said, “More than anything, it’s the uncertainty of the timeline, if you will, about certifying the rolls so we can set a tax rate. If that gets delayed, how will we cash-flow that? How does this affect our bond election?”

Eckhardt asked TCAD attorney Debbie Cartwright to address the worries about the timeline. Cartwright told Eckhardt that Austin Mayor Steve Adler had indicated during the Council vote on Thursday that his objective is to share the city’s information with TCAD. The appraisal district is otherwise banned by state law from collecting such information itself.

“If the chief appraiser in reviewing that information believes that the rolls were properly done or they could do a subset of a reappraisal or any other number of options, the city would be willing to withdraw its petition to challenge,” Cartwright explained.

After the meeting, Shea told the Monitor that she took Adler at his word. “It’s not like we have a reckless yahoo running out into the street causing chaos without truly understanding what they’re doing,” Shea said. “We have the exact opposite. We have an extremely knowledgeable, careful, thoughtful, responsible action on the part of the city.“

Austin Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo was also at Friday’s meeting. She corroborated Cartwright’s understanding of Adler’s objective. However, Tovo noted that any withdrawal of the petition to challenge will require another majority vote by Council. She told the Monitor after the meeting that the county’s decision to do nothing will not alter the city’s plans.

The state’s Appraisal Review Board has 10 days to set a hearing once it receives the city’s formal challenge. The city can back out at any time before that hearing.

Photo by Michael (Flickr: Downtown Austin, TX) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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