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Council affirms support for appraisal district suit

Friday, December 4, 2015 by Jo Clifton

With seven members present at a special called meeting on Thursday, City Council unanimously affirmed its commitment to a lawsuit challenging the accuracy of the Travis Central Appraisal District’s appraised values for commercial properties and vacant land. In that lawsuit, the city also sought to declare certain portions of the Texas Tax Code unconstitutional.

District Judge Tim Sulak dismissed the city’s case against TCAD and commercial property owners in Travis County on Nov. 6. He ruled that the city did not have the legal authority to challenge the appraisal system. At the time, Sulak indicated that his ruling would “tee up” the case for an appeal.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, who sponsored the resolution, said, “This resolution doesn’t change any of the actions we’ve already initiated. It doesn’t initiate any new actions. Its primary intent was to reiterate the reasons we are supportive of our staff continuing to move forward (with the lawsuit).”

Tovo also reiterated that the purpose of the lawsuit was not to raise more tax money but to raise that money in a more equitable manner, so that homeowners would not pay a disproportionate share, as opposed to owners of commercial property.

However, when Council Member Don Zimmerman proposed an amendment to the resolution regarding the use of any extra money that might come in as a result of the city winning the lawsuit, his colleagues did not agree.

Zimmerman said that the goal of the amendment, which had been proposed by fellow conservative Council Member Ellen Troxclair on the City Council Message Board, was to clarify that any redistribution of property tax would be revenue neutral. He explained that the city “wouldn’t increase spending with the additional money that came in, but rather we would lower the residential tax burden – so if the commercial revenue comes up, then the residential burden goes down.”

Troxclair was absent because she was attending a conference in Arizona, according to Council Member Sheri Gallo. Gallo was the only one on the dais who voted with Zimmerman on the amendment.

Tovo said the city’s legal staff would move forward with one of two options, filing either a motion for new trial or an appeal to the Texas 3rd Court of Appeals. Mayor Steve Adler has indicated that he would favor the motion for new trial, which would offer the judge a chance to reiterate his original ruling or allow the city to make more legal arguments against dismissing the case. Such a motion also gives the city more time to file its appeal.

Adler and Council Member Leslie Pool were absent from Thursday’s meeting because they were attending the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris. Council Member Greg Casar was also absent due to a previously scheduled meeting, according to his staff.

Gallo argued that the city had already made substantial progress in equalizing appraised values. She said that the city had information indicating that commercial properties were undervalued by 27 percent last year but that it had received new information showing that on the 2015 certified tax rolls, commercial property valuations had gone up an average of 24 percent. So she questioned whether it was really necessary to move forward with the lawsuit.

Council Member Ann Kitchen told Gallo that the city was trying to ensure fair and equitable appraisals, not seeking to change the tax appraisals by a specific percentage. She said there was not necessarily any causal relationship between the new numbers and the city’s lawsuit and that it would be necessary to go through with the lawsuit to ensure that the numbers and the process used by TCAD were both appropriate.

Zimmerman told Gallo that he wanted to proceed with a lawsuit to ensure that the city and residential property owners would not end up in the same position next year that they were in this year.

He said, “I think there is a reasonable presumption that our action” – filing the lawsuit – “did lead to these numbers, and I agree with you that we’re in better shape. I see nothing that would stop next year’s appraisals from going back to the same problem we started with. These numbers come in year after year after year, and I see nothing so far that we have done that would prevent the problem from happening next year.”

In addition, Zimmerman and Kitchen said they wanted a court to answer legal questions surrounding laws governing appraisals and the methods for challenging them.

Austin Texas Sunset Skyline 2011” by Ed SchipulFlickr: Austin Texas. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons.

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