Tax Assessor-Collect­or Race Gets Dirty

Mud starting to fly in Democratic primary race for Travis Co. tax asses­sor-collector, with each candidate calling the other a liar

The mud is really starting to fly in the Dem­ocratic primary race for Travis Co. tax asses­sor-collector, with each candidate calling the other a liar. In a November campaign e-mail, incumbent Nelda Wells Spears attacked law firms that want to privatize the county's successful tax-collection operations – and claimed that, "Despite her outstanding record, those powerful private firms are bankrolling a political consultant running against Nelda in the March 4 primary." That charge has been refuted repeatedly by challenger Glen Maxey, who says he has "exactly the same" position as Spears on privatization – he's against it. So in his own campaign e-mail, he responds, "Don't be misled! Glen Maxey opposes privatizing tax collection and has publicly refused to accept donations from firms that have actively advocated for privatization. ... Why is Nelda Spears lying to the public about Glen Maxey? Is she attempting to take the spotlight off her own failure to show up for our community?"

That last sentence refers to a claim Maxey has made against Spears: that she isn't active enough in protecting Austinites – particularly East Austinites – from losing their homes due to ever-rising property-tax rates. As evidence, he says that, although Spears by law sits on the Central Appraisal District board of directors, she has attended only 22% of the board's meetings in the past 10 years and only 12% since 2000, and he cites an LBJ School of Public Affairs report purportedly showing that, in his words, "while only 15% of Austin homes are in East Austin, these neighborhoods accounted for 47% of tax delinquencies and 72% of the foreclosures [in fiscal year 2006]. This means those who can least afford it are forced to resort to predatory lenders or sell their homes, for many their only investment, just to pay their tax bill."

That prompted a heated response from the Spears camp. Political consultant Kelly Fero in an e-mail to the Chronicle called the charges "Glen Maxey's Swift Boat attacks" and "willful distortions." Fero's counterclaim – similar to points made by former state representative and Spears ally Wilhelmina Delco at a candidates debate two months ago – is that, first of all, Spears is an ex-officio nonvoting member of the board, and that board doesn't set appraisal values anyway – that is done by the Appraisal Review Board, which is appointed by the CAD board. Secondly, and much more importantly: While those LBJ report numbers are accurate, the foreclosures did not involve homeowners. In fact, the report – titled "Com­munity Change in East Austin" – specifically states, "It is important to note, however, that these tax foreclosures did not result in the displacement of East Austin residents. According to the County Attorney's Office, all properties were vacant or had been deemed uninhabitable by the City of Austin. ... [I]n the case of East Austin, many tax foreclosures in FY 2006 were due to cloudy family title issues." As for her attendance, Fero said many of those missed meetings were pro forma meetings required by state law but at which Spears' presence wasn't needed.

Asked to comment on their respective alleged lying, the two sides responded.

Maxey: "If she wished to be a voting member, she could be. So the second charge I would make is that she is derelict in not taking a voting position on that board." Maxey said that since Travis County has the most votes on the Central Appraisal District board, Spears could simply ask the county to make her a voting member. "Clearly she has never even attempted to be a voting member, and I think that says a lot about her attitude." As for the LBJ report: "That report only covered one fiscal year. The bigger issue here – we can debate about 14 properties – is that there are literally hundreds upon hundreds of families struggling every year through this process. If you talk to East Austin leaders – I've heard Susana Almanza from [People Organized in Defense of Earth and Her Resources] ... a whole bunch of East Austin people just in the last month at housing forums stand up [to] talk about the process of people attempting to hold on to their homes because of increases in property values."

Former Travis Co. Judge Bill Aleshire, Spears' campaign treasurer, said, "Mr. Maxey began his campaign with $5,000 from a law clerk in a private tax collection firm to 'bankroll' his initial mail piece that was criticized for misinforming voters about the role of the office he's running for. Nelda has not personally claimed Maxey's campaign is bankrolled by the private lawyers or anyone else. She's not going there. But Maxey is still carrying their water by spreading the same distortions about home foreclosures in East Austin that they did while trying to privatize tax collections last year. After the excellent results Nelda has achieved, voters are having trouble figuring out why he's running in the first place."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Travis Co. tax assessor-collector, Glen Maxey, Nelda Wells Spears, Election

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