The Austin Chronicle

Justice For Homeowners

By Amy Smith, June 1, 2014, 4:20pm, Newsdesk

Responding to growing concerns over lopsided tax bills that favor large commercial property owners over homeowners, Travis County Commissioners will hold a special meeting Monday, June 2, to decide whether to challenge the 2014 commercial property tax roll.

Commissioners will convene at 1:30pm at 700 Lavaca “concerning the filing of a challenge petition with the appraisal review board regarding the setting of commercial property values,” according to a posting of the meeting. Most of commissioners’ discussion will take place with attorneys in executive session; it’s uncertain whether or when commissioners will allow public testimony before taking action. But homeowners, at least those able to break away for a mid-day meeting, are encouraged to attend anyway, if only to hold placards thanking commissioners for their vote.

The special meeting follows a May 20 community forum on property taxes that drew an overflow crowd to a North Austin church, as well as similar group discussions among homeowners worried about getting priced out of their homes.

Austin and Travis County residents are not alone in their beef with a state law's loopholes that allow big commercial properties to be appraised well below their sales price or market value. Commercial property owners have both the law on their side and the financial means to appeal their way to lower market values in order to keep their taxes low.

Such a system starves local governments. Real Values for Texas, a statewide grassroots group campaigning for property tax reform, says public schools, libraries and other local services lost an estimated $4 billion in the last five years.

The protest by Travis County and other counties could be the first step toward trying to clean up state tax laws and its liberal use of exceptions for commercial properties. Austin Sen. Kirk Watson has said he’ll do his part to try to affect change at the state level.

“There’s value in having local governmental entities protest commercial valuations because that provides more evidence for how out of whack they are,” said Brigid Shea, who is expected to become the next Precinct 2 Commissioner after the November election. She campaigned on property tax reform and organized the May 20 forum, which included representatives of the Travis Central Appraisal District and Real Values for Texas, and Tax Assessor-Collector Bruce Elfant.

Shea credited interim Pct. 2 Commissioner Bruce Todd for spearheading Monday’s special meeting. "He's the one who helped to move things along," she said.

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