Appraisal Reform at the County? Never Mind ...

Commissioners won't challenge appraisal district's undervalued commercial property

Travis County commissioners agreed last week that the county is getting shortchanged on taxable commercial properties – then they opted against taking formal action against the Travis Central Appraisal District for lowballing the parcels.

Instead, commissioners decided to throw money at the problem – kicking in additional funding to increase TCAD staffing, with the intent that more people on the ground would presumably deliver more accurate future valuations of properties on the tax roll. In return, Chief Appraiser Patrick Brown vowed to correct a deep-rooted system that has steadily driven the cost of residential properties skyward while commercial property values have inexplicably trended downward. "I am committed to directing our efforts to do a better job," Brown told commissioners at the July 21 Commissioners Court meeting.

Both Brown and Brian Rodgers – an Aus­tin real estate investor who produced an independent study that brought the appraisal inequities to light – had been invited to appear before the court to lay out their respective concerns. A few weeks earlier, Rodgers had met with local elected officials to review his findings, culled from 30 appraisals of commercial properties in all regions of the county. The sample included several choice real estate properties, such as the Downtown Austonian condos and prime tracts of land near Lake Travis.

This year, the appraisal district is wading through a record number of contested property tax cases, the vast majority residential. "We are looking at about 88,000 properties – basically 88,000 people that think [the] values are too high," Brown said. It's no secret that well-off homeowners and large commercial property owners – those who can afford to hire big guns as advocates – are generally more successful in getting their values lowered. Their success rate, however, comes at a cost. Because Texas has no income tax, taxing entities depend on property taxes to fund public schools and, along with sales taxes, other government services, and consequently lower-income homeowners end up carrying more of the burden.

Rodgers, a member of activist group ChangeAustin.org, had asked commissioners to either challenge the district (though the deadline for such action passed last month) or seek an audit from the state comptroller's office. He expressed disappointment that the county chose not to pursue the matter.

"I gave the county commissioners $120 million in missing property valuation on 30 properties as the tip of the iceberg and offered $120 million more," Rodgers said. "There was little doubt expressed by anyone in the court. So when the commissioners punted in the face of all this proof, I could tell that greater forces than the public good were at work."

Greater forces also prevailed at the Legis­lature this year, with the unsuccessful attempt to require mandatory sales disclosures on all properties. Brown, like other appraisers across Texas, complains that the lack of a disclosure law creates the biggest barrier to obtaining accurate information. As in past sessions, industry groups, including the Real Estate Council of Austin, lobbied against disclosure legislation. One bill did pass, however, that could shed more light on how appraisal districts operate; it requires the state comptroller to conduct performance audits of appraisal districts every other year.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

appraisal district, Travis County, county commissioners, Brian Rodgers, Patrick Brown, property taxes

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