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Jo Clifton is the Politics Editor for the Austin Monitor.
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Travis Central Appraisal District: The tax appraisal district for Travis County.
The Travis Central Appraisal District stands alone among six districts surveyed in its decision not to update property appraisals this year, according to a special report by the Austin city auditor. The failure to update property values has caused considerable angst among local governments, especially Travis County school districts.
As the auditors reported, “In Texas, property taxes are a source of funding that pays for local services including public schools, libraries, parks, streets, and emergency services. Appraisal districts work to appraise property and establish its value to allow local governments to set their tax rates.”
Of the districts surveyed, all “reported getting the data they need to update appraised values from three main sources: real estate databases, buyers and sellers, and the appraisal appeals process.” After the Austin Board of Realtors, which owns MLS data, threatened legal action against TCAD last year, the district lost direct access to sales price data it had been receiving through the MLS service.
According to a statement from TCAD, the district had planned its future appraisal processes around the fulfillment of a contract with CoreLogic, which had access to the MLS data. TCAD said in March, “As we continue to explore solutions to obtaining the market data we need to accurately appraise properties in Travis County, we are looking at the power of the court system to help.”
Texas law requires each appraisal district to reappraise property at least once every three years. TCAD was alone among those surveyed to say it did not have enough sales information to update most property values for 2020. However, the district did assign values to newly constructed residences and commercial properties.
Chief Appraiser Marya Crigler sent the following statement in response to the report: “The city auditor’s report confirms that appraisal districts have limited sources of information to appraise properties and that verifying that information can be difficult. Additionally, it shows that appraisal districts agreed – we need access to sales information to do our job. The Travis Central Appraisal District continues to explore resources to obtain the data we need to appraise properties in Travis County.”
Council Member Alison Alter, who chairs the Council Audit & Finance Committee, and Council Member Leslie Pool, the vice chair, requested that the auditor do the special report. Both cited the need for greater transparency to help TCAD and other districts assign appropriate property values.
Alter told the Austin Monitor via email: “I requested this special project to see how other Texas appraisal districts conduct their property value updates. I hoped we might be able to identify solutions for TCAD’s current challenges. Given the findings of this report, it seems clear that until state law changes, it remains difficult for appraisal districts to obtain the information they need to do the job they are required by law to do.”
Pool said via text, “The whole TCAD process sounds rather too random to me. Property appraisals should be standardized and professional, and the state legislature should require accurate, timely data from all sales to ensure that owners – be they residential, commercial or industrial – are treated fairly and objectively, and the taxing entities have reliable, truthful data, no matter where they live in Texas.”
She added, “While this is not a full audit, this report touches on issues that need our attention and raises questions about the availability of reliable, consistent information used to calculate residential valuations. I’d like to pursue conversations with TCAD’s chief appraiser to ensure more accuracy and consistency. If we had more transparency and uniformity, folks would have confidence in TCAD’s valuations and perhaps we would reduce the growing number of protests each year.”
However, attorney Bill Aleshire, who sometimes represents companies challenging TCAD’s assigned property values, continued to criticize the district and Crigler, specifically. “As I’ve been saying, all of the other appraisal districts have figured out to update appraisal values annually without having MLS. The only reason TCAD is not updating market values is because our chief appraiser threw a petulant tantrum after getting caught pirating MLS data she knew she was not allowed by ABOR to have, and neither the TCAD Board or any of the elected officials would countermand her.”
Aleshire suggested that the district should be using older sales data and adjusting for current market conditions. He said via email, “There is no rule that a market valuation for a neighborhood need be one year in duration. In practice, most appraisal districts use the previous year and two or three months of the current year for their market value analysis. If adjusted for market to conditions … there would be plenty of data to revalue the file. The ZIP Code sales information that the Austin Board of Realtors is giving the appraisal district is exactly what could be used to feel comfortable about market conditions adjustments.”
When the Monitor asked Crigler about use of the ZIP Code data, she replied via email, “It would be illegal for us to change market values without having the data to support those changes. Using aggregate data to do across-the-board increases would violate the Texas Property Code … Travis County property owners deserve better. During the time where property owners are struggling with affordability issues, every dollar matters. We cannot and will not increase property values without the data to support it. We are required to appraise properties at market value and the only way to determine that is by using market data. Despite our efforts to collect data from a variety of sources, the limited data we have does not indicate any change in current market values. We remain committed to working with our taxing entities to find a solution to this issue that is legal and fair for Travis County property owners.”
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