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Lawsuit claims TCAD hiding sales price information

Thursday, February 13, 2020 by Jo Clifton

Protax, which represents property owners who are protesting the property values assigned to their homes, and 10 of its employees have sued the Travis Central Appraisal District alleging the agency has violated the Texas Public Information Act.

According to the lawsuit, which was filed Tuesday, “TCAD has an automated pool of evidence it uses to make and defend its tax appraisals, including sales price information,” and other information used to compare property values between selected properties. The lawsuit alleges that in the past TCAD gave Protax and its employees access to that information and Protax “caught TCAD cherrypicking the evidence to try to justify unjustifiably high tax appraisals.” But in 2019 the agency “started concealing the evidence so TCAD would not continue to be exposed for improperly manipulating the evidence.”

The Texas Public Information Act “requires disclosure of such evidence to agents of the property owners, such as Protax,” the suit says. That includes otherwise confidential sales information, which “must be shared with taxpayers or their representatives to use in tax appraisal protests.”

The plaintiffs say there is no good legal reason that TCAD should prevent Protax and its agents from having access to the same data that Chief Appraiser Marya Crigler and her staff use in arguments over whether the appraisals are too high. “That is the only use Protax or its agents make of the sales information. The denial of timely access to the central pool of evidence is regarded as a deliberate tactic by the chief appraiser to undermine and disadvantage taxpayer protests,” the suit says.

Attorney Bill Aleshire, who represents Protax and its employees, explained to the Austin Monitor, “This lawsuit became necessary because TCAD is hiding sales-price evidence in its possession that is needed to protest overvaluation by TCAD. By concealing evidence, TCAD seeks to put taxpayers at a disadvantage even though concealing the evidence violates the Texas Public Information Act. Protax is going to fight for its clients and fight TCAD’s shady ways of keeping taxpayers from getting a fair hearing on their tax appraisal protests.”

According to the lawsuit, TCAD uses what is called an equity grid. “The equity grid is evidence as to whether like properties are uniformly and equally appraised by TCAD. Getting access to TCAD’s equity grid for each and every property is valuable because Protax can expose fallacies in TCAD’s selection of comps (comparable properties) for the grid and demonstrate how the protested property value is not equal and uniform.”

The lawsuit goes on to note that TCAD was able to “surreptitiously obtain Multiple Listing Service sales price data and then try to use that sales data against taxpayers who protest TCAD’s inflated tax appraisal values.” Protax was seeking information on the same sales price data that TCAD has in its records. But TCAD started to refuse to provide some of that data which Protax deemed relevant to making its case.

Until 2019, TCAD was complying with requests for “a complete data dump,” and all the sales grids and equity grids used by the agency. Protax and its agents made a public information request in September 2019, while there were still many protests pending from that year. The company had agents assigned to multiple accounts throughout the city. However, the lawsuit says “TCAD responded that each agent would have to pick up a CD with information just restricted to the accounts on which that agent was shown on the Appointment of Agent form. This tactic would conceal sales data on other relevant and comparable properties.” TCAD also took the unusual step of requiring that the agents not share the information with their employer or the company’s senior property tax consultant.

According to Protax’s analysis, TCAD withheld more than 11,000 equity grids and 86,000 sales grids. The plaintiffs concluded that for 2019, “TCAD apparently had in its possession at least 4,593 sales, but provided the sale price on only 794 sales. While TCAD did disclose about 44,239 sales for years 2016-2019, TCAD refused to disclose sales, sale prices and sale dates, for as many as an estimated 33,761 accounts on which TCAD had the sales data.”

TCAD did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.

Last month, 138 taxpayers represented by Aleshire sued TCAD and the Travis Appraisal Review Board for failing to hold hearings on their protests of values assigned to their properties in 2019. That suit is still pending.

In that case, property owners were unable to get a hearing last year and as a result were required to pay their taxes by Jan. 31 or face a penalty, even if they eventually prevail in a hearing this year.

Last night, the Austin-American Statesman reported that Crigler told school districts on Wednesday that the appraisal district would not be updating property appraisals for 2020.

Photo courtesy of Google Maps.

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