Commissioners Say No to Tax Protest

County will study, not challenge, commercial appraisal roll

County Judge Sam Biscoe
County Judge Sam Biscoe (by John Anderson)

Travis County Commissioners this afternoon opted against waging a protest with the appraisal district over the 2014 commercial property tax roll. Instead, commissioners voted to study the appraisal process and work with the Legislature to try to resolve property tax inequities.

The vote was 4-0, with Margaret Gomez absent, although she had already made public her opposition to filing a challenge petition.

Interim Precinct 2 Commissioner Bruce Todd made the motion for a study and a collaborative approach to fixing a law that favors large commercial properties, which are generally believed to be appraised at below market value.

“One challenge doesn’t fix the flaws,” Todd said in making his motion. He noted that based on a staff analysis, even if the commercial property roll increased by $1 billion, homeowners would only save an average of $10 on their tax bill.

County Judge Sam Biscoe acknowledged the thorniness of the tax issue but he said the study would be the best route to work toward resolution. He suggested partnering with the city and other taxing entities to help finance the study. As for filing a petition, he said, that option moves off the table.

It’s uncertain how the commissioners’ action Tuesday will affect how the City Council will vote on a similar proposal on Thursday’s agenda.

In a hearing preceding the vote, homeowners urged commissioners to contest the entire 2014 commercial property tax roll, while real estate reps voiced opposition to such action. “This is scapegoat politics at its worst,” said Nancy McDonald of the Real Estate Council of Austin. A representative of the Building Owners and Managers Association said of the proposed item, “We feel this is an impulsive response to public pressure.”

Buck Wood, an Austin attorney who specializes in state and local taxation laws, offered the most vigorous argument for challenging the appraised values of commercial and industrial properties. He said residential taxpayers are subsidizing larger commercial properties – a long-standing practice he called “unconscionable.” He pressed commissioners to file a challenge petition “and not kick the can down the road.” He said he fully expected the appraisal district to reject the county’s petition, but when that happens the county can take the fight to the next level – the courthouse.

“You’re not going to fix it by doing nothing. You’re not going to fix it by putting it off,” Wood said. “File this challenge,” he repeated, drawing applause.

Commissioner Gerald Daugherty took issue with Wood’s demands, calling him disrespectful of county staff members who recommended against filing a challenge. “It’s probably not a good place to start by coming and trying to insult us, the staff, and whatever,” Daugherty said.

“When I see a situation when somebody is giving bad information, I am not inclined to sit here and just be nice,” Wood responded.

Brigid Shea, a County Commissioner candidate who’s made property tax equity a centerpiece of her campaign, likewise urged the court to begin the first step in challenging the state’s lopsided appraisal law. She said she’s fearful a more conservative Legislature will respond to voters’ cry for property tax reform by shrinking taxes to the extent that it will hobble the financing of public schools and make it more difficult for cities to pay for public services. “I think there’s no harm in taking action today, but I think there is great harm in inaction,” she said.

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Travis County Commissioners Court, County Commissioners, property taxes, commercial property owners, homeowners, Bruce Todd, Sam Biscoe, Buck Wood, Real Estate Council of Austin, Margarez Gomez

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