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Taxpayers sue over lack of appraisal hearings

Wednesday, January 8, 2020 by Jo Clifton

One hundred and thirty-eight Travis County property owners have sued the Travis Appraisal Review Board and the Travis Central Appraisal District for failing to provide timely hearings on the property owners’ protests of their 2019 appraisals.

The two agencies are responsible for deciding the value of Travis County properties and taxpayers’ arguments about those appraisals. Plaintiffs are seeking a court order to force the appraisal review board to give them a prompt hearing. All of the plaintiffs are clients of Five Stone Tax Advisers.

Attorney Bill Aleshire, who represents the plaintiffs, told the Austin Monitor he expects to have a hearing on the case in district court in February, and he’s hoping that the appraisal review board “will realize this is not something they should be fighting.”

According to documents filed with the suit, the appraisal review board made numerous errors in notifying taxpayers and their representatives about the time and place for their hearings last summer and fall. Those errors, the plaintiffs say, caused their representatives to miss hearings and as a result have their protests dismissed.

Even though taxpayers and their representatives filed protests with TARB about the lack of notice for their hearings, TCAD Chief Appraiser Marya Crigler told the Monitor that the “appraisal review board had a hearing on that topic and the ARB determined that they did have notice.” She said the only remedy left for taxpayers who still wished to protest was to go to court.

In the case of plaintiff Anthony Sessa, the lawsuit says even after the Travis Appraisal Review Board admitted the appraisal district’s support staff had failed to send him a notice of hearing and agreed to reschedule it, the review board announced it had “adjourned for the 2019 tax protest season.” Although the board admitted its mistake, Sessa will not be able to present his evidence until spring or summer of 2020, according to an email from TARB.

Sessa’s taxes are apparently still due by Jan. 31.

Aleshire told the Monitor that he is advising all of his clients to pay their taxes before the deadline. In almost all cases, failure to pay taxes on time will mean that property owners lose their right to protest, he said.

According to the lawsuit, the decision to quit holding hearings left the 138 property owners without any hearings. Aleshire said more than 250 other taxpayers were also denied hearings when the appraisal review board recessed that process. He said he had heard that the agency stopped having hearings because it lacked space, but as far as he could see it had the space to hold several hearings at one time after the adjournment.

He commented further: “It is utterly ridiculous that these taxpayers are having to sue the Travis appraisal district and appraisal review board just to get a timely hearing on their 2019 tax protest. But whoever is responsible at TCAD or TARB for ‘adjourning’ the review board back in October when their work was not finished deserves to be hauled into court and ordered to give these taxpayers their protest hearings. There is no legal excuse for a governmental body to just take the winter and spring off when there are taxpayers entitled to a protest hearing before their taxes come due on Jan. 31.”

Debra Bawcom, chief executive officer for the firm Texas Protax Austin, provided an affidavit for the lawsuit explaining that her firm received its first round of hearing notices from TARB on May 21. She emailed TARB Chair Betty Thompson to let her know they were “extremely concerned that some of our hearing notices could be mailed to other companies and not delivered to any of our agents. We included with the email an example of a hearing notice addressed to another firm that was included in our hearing packets from May 21.”

Though Bawcom asked that all hearing notices be sent to the firm’s email address, her request was not acknowledged, she said. On July 16, Bawcom emailed Thompson to let her know that her firm had received a hearing notice that was supposedly for a Texas Protax agent but was addressed to a firm called Lewis Property Tax Services. Thompson did not acknowledge the email.

In another instance, Bawcom said she met with Thompson to discuss an envelope they had received that was addressed to another agent. “The issue was that the envelope was empty and did not contain any information. I took the envelope to Ms. Thompson to show her that the envelope was empty and explain my concern again that we may not have received notices that were supposedly delivered. Her only comment to me was that we would need to file 41.411 protests on anything we do not think we received notices for.”

On Oct. 16, Bawcom said she emailed Thompson to inform her that her firm had received notices for yet another firm. She concluded, “We believe as of Oct. 28, 2019, Protax still has 52 outstanding protests for which we never received a notice of hearing.”

Texas Protax is not a party to the lawsuit, but the company and its clients could benefit from any court ruling ordering the appraisal board to hold hearings on 2019 protests before starting on the 2020 protest season.

This story has been changed since publication to clarify that, though he is part of the suit, Anthony Sessa is not a client of Five Stone. Photo courtesy of the Travis Central Appraisal District.

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