Monthly Archives: May 2015

Dancing To The Taxpayer Blues

By Bill Oakey – May 29, 2015

A long tall Texan got into his pickup truck and switched on the radio. He listened to the following commentary from a country music deejay down in Austin.

Now folks, I don’t get into politics on this show, but I heard about something the City Council said that I think you should know about. They were talking about an unlevel playing field for property taxes.  Something about the system that isn’t quite right.

Maybe they have a point.  Have you ever sat down in a Texas dance hall and tried to hold onto a beer when the table wasn’t level? Worse case scenario, you would spill some of that beer on your best friend’s wife, right after you danced to “The Last Cheater’s Waltz.” I think we need the City to level our taxes.

I have a nutty friend who spends a lot of time reading City financial reports. Darned if he didn’t tell me that the City Manager is promising once again to “hold the line on the tax rate.” Man, they’ve been pulling the wool over our eyes every year on that stuff. Willie Nelson, Norah Jones and Wynton Marsalis nailed it with the song, “Here We Go Again.” Isn’t there supposed to be some kind of truth in taxation?

The high taxes have priced people so far out into the suburbs that it’s a wonder more of them don’t fall Asleep at the Wheel while sitting in traffic. I can see why the character in George Strait’s song, “All My Ex’s Live in Texas” now hangs his hat in Tennessee. He couldn’t afford his Austin taxes.

And it keeps getting worse. The end of year tax deadline is not a whole lot of fun. In 1974, Merle Haggard released a sad but hopeful tune called, “If We Make It Through December.” He must have known what was coming down the pike in Austin.

All right folks, it’s time for me to get off my soapbox and get back to some more hit music. Here’s one I think you’ll enjoy called, “When I’m Under the Table, I’ll Be Over You.”

hat

City Council Unanimously Approves Commercial Tax Appraisal Challenge

By Bill Oakey – May 28, 2015

In a historic move likely to elicit statewide attention, The Austin City Council on Thursday voted unanimously to proceed with a formal challenge of commercial property valuations to the Travis Central Appraisal District (TCAD). Several citizen speakers, including Leigh Murrin with Real Values for Texas and Vicki Totten with Austin Fair Tax spoke eloquently in favor of the challenge.

The rallying cry from both citizens and our Council Members this afternoon was all about fairness. In my view, this decidedly bold step will enable our City to shine a beacon for fairness across the state. Mayor Steve Adler summed up the sentiments when he stated that “Everyone here on the Council dais agrees that our appraisal system is broken.” What Austin has done will inspire other cities to sit up and take notice that the battle has begun. We all recognize that comprehensive tax reform must be done through the State Legislature. Although that task has seemed insurmountable in the past, we now find ourselves on a firm path toward that goal. People seeking to galvanize the spirits of taxpayers across the state have witnessed the lighting of the spark today. With a lot of hard work yet to come, our sights are already fixed on the 2017 legislative session.

Mayor Adler has signaled a strong desire for a spirit of cooperation among the various taxing jurisdictions impacted by today’s decision. Discussions are underway with various involved parties to ensure that each taxing entity is kept in the loop at every step of the process.  Earlier concerns expressed about potential delays in tax roll certifications and possible interruptions in revenue disbursements are being addressed quite satisfactorily. One solution being considered is to send estimated bills to taxpayers, so they can make their annual payments at the usual time and still claim their Federal income tax deductions.

We must all keep in mind, however, that the opponents of this action will be working every bit as hard to counter the success of our challenge. On that note, we are fortunate to have new City leadership with good experience and expertise. Mayor Adler, who brings many years of legal practice to the table, has established a cooperative tone at the outset. And by voting unanimously to support the appraisal challenge, the entire City Council approaches the endeavor on a united front.

Several City Council Members mentioned the compelling need to address affordability in Austin. They acknowledged that rapidly escalating tax appraisals are an oppressive burden for long-term residents, including many in our minority communities. It was also announced today that TCAD staff and City officials will work together over the next two weeks to take the necessary steps to ensure that the challenge does not impede the critical functions of each taxing authority. TCAD has assured everyone that no adverse effects will happen during that initial two-week period.

On Friday morning at 10:00 AM the Travis County Commissioners Court will meet in executive session to consider their role in Austin’s appraisal challenge.

What Happens When “The City Manager Is Directed To…” And He Doesn’t?

By Bill Oakey – May 27, 2015

That just happened to be the burning question that woke me up this morning. And I certainly think it is a fair one to ask. Amongst the mountains of papers that lie nestled on office shelves and lurk in various cubbyholes down at City Hall are a multitude of City Council resolutions. These are very official-looking documents – the ones with all those “whereas” clauses. They even contain official-looking dates and signatures.

Many of them also contain the intriguing phrase, “The City Manager is directed to…” do a specified thing. And in many cases, he is given a specified deadline to carry out this directed task. I should have thought about that little piece of verbiage each time I emailed a City Council member during this past year, trying to follow up on affordability issues. It turns out that some of these official resolutions do not carry much weight.

Here is a case in point. Last year I blogged about the need to cease the preponderance of special event fee waivers being given away for years. The American-Statesman editorialized that the practice should be eliminated for South By Southwest, since they have received many millions in waived fees.  So last year on May 1st, Mayor Pro-Tem Kathie Tovo sponsored City Council Resolution # 20140501-036. This approved resolution called for reviewing alternate funding sources for special event fee waivers. Among those suggested were surcharges on ticket sales and using funds from the Hotel Occupancy Tax. As I mentioned in a recent blog post, the Hotel Occupancy Tax revenues have ballooned from $51 million in 2012 to over $70 million in 2014. So, I have included that source in my current round of affordability proposals. The taxpayers need relief.

Please take note of the last three “Whereas” clauses in the Tovo resolution. Each one begins with the phrase, “The City Manager is directed to.” The last one reads:

“The City Manager is directed to present the proposal for the special events fund and fee waiver process by August 7, 2014 to allow Council to consider the proposals as part of the City’s budget process.” Well, August 7, 2014 came and went and the City Manager’s response never came. My repeated attempts since then to obtain the status of this resolution have not yielded any results. Now we are bumping up against another annual budget process, and I have called upon the new City Council to consider not using local taxpayer funds for these fee waivers.

But What About the Larger Issue Here?

A few other questions have wandered across my mind this morning. Perhaps the City Council should think about them as well:

1. How many other pending resolutions are out there awaiting responses to “The City Manager is directed to…?” To help the Council members start their journey in pursuit of that question, I offer this Google search that they can cut and paste into a browser: Austin “The City Manager Is Directed to.” They can just click the link.

2. How about adopting a practice that all City Council resolutions be posted to a public webpage that contains the date, subject, text, required action deadline, and current status of all pending and future resolutions?

3. Without a firm policy in place to enforce the directives contained in City Council resolutions, why not consider gathering up all printed copies of them and directing them to the nearest recycle bin?

Come And Speak 4:00 PM Thursday At City Council On Tax Appraisal Challenge

By Bill Oakey – May 26, 2015

The Austin City Council must decide by June 1st whether to launch a landmark challenge to the Travis Central Appraisal District over the undervalued commercial properties in this year’s tax appraisals. You can help convince them make the right decision to go forward with the appeal. Come to the City Council Chambers at 301 West 2nd Street, this Thursday May 28th. Bring your neighbors and friends. Email, text, Tweet and Facebook the link to this blog posting. We have obtained a 4:00 time certain for speakers on this topic, which is Item #4 on the agenda. You can sign up to speak, using the kiosks in the lobby of the Council Chambers anytime between now and Thursday’s meeting.

Please keep in mind that this is not an adversarial action against the TCAD appraisal officials. They have been very cooperative with our City Council members and City staff. This is the legally required process to correct major flaws caused by the Texas appraisal system. The law does not require sales price disclosure on either residential or commercial real estate transactions.

Here are some new developments on the Council’s pending decision on the appraisal challenge. Two major stumbling blocks could cause Travis County, AISD, or any of the other taxing entities in our area to oppose Austin’s challenge to TCAD. Both involve a potential delay in TCAD’s new certification of the tax rolls after the revised commercial appraisals have been calculated.

For one thing, taxpayers who usually make their payments to the Travis County Tax Office at the end of the year might lose the opportunity to do that, and then lose their Federal income tax deduction for this year. But a solution to that problem was discussed at Tuesday’s City Council Work Session. A plan is underway to allow taxpayers to pay an estimated tax by the end of the year and still use that for their Federal tax deduction. Then they would simply make a final supplemental payment once the new tax rolls are certified and final tax bill amounts are determined. With these tax receipts coming in, the taxing entities would not face a delay in receiving the revenues needed to fund their operations.

Plans are also being considered that might allow TCAD to certify the new tax rolls faster and shorten the delay period. City Council members are looking into whether each taxing entity could make a small contribution to TCAD and the Travis County Tax Office, so they could hire temporary workers to help them through the clerical work required to finish the new certification and get new tax notices sent out

We’ll see you in the City Council Chambers on Thursday afternoon. We are one step closer to ending the egregious inequity of undervalued commercial properties that has plagued residential taxpayers for too many years. For more information on the flawed Texas appraisal system, please visit Real Values for Texas at this link. Read their report and watch their excellent video.

Where To Help For Central Texas Flood Relief

By Bill Oakey – May 24, 2015

The storms that swept through Blanco, Wimberley, San Marcos, Kyle and other communities near Austin brought historic flood levels in some areas. Homes have been damaged or destroyed and people, pets and livestock have been injured or displaced.

If you would like to donate or find out where to volunteer, please contact the Austin Disaster Relief Network using this link. Or, you can call them at 512-428-6322. Their address is 1122 East 51st Street, Austin, TX 78723. The entrance to their office is facing 51st Street.

City Report On Tax Appraisal Inequities Draws Outrage

By Bill Oakey – May 21, 2015

On Tuesday May 19th, a blue ribbon panel of City and County officials and other top leaders addressed an emotional crowd at the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Austin. The topic was property tax appraisals. The speaker lineup included:

Brigid Shea, Travis County Commissioner
Steve Adler, Mayor of Austin
Kathie Tovo, City of Austin Mayor Pro Tem
Bruce Elfant, Travis County Tax Assessor
Marya Crigler, Travis Central Appraisal District Chief Appraiser
Dick Lavine, Center for Public Policy Priorities
Leigh Murrin, Real Values for Texas

If you missed this event, please consider watching the full video here. It was highly informative, even if you thought you knew quite a bit about our tax appraisal system and how unjust it is. The combined factual and emotional impact is quite stunning. The City of Austin is considering filing a formal appeal of the undervalued commercial properties here in Austin. Estimates vary, but in many cases, large commercial buildings have been found to be undervalued by 40% or more.

On May 11th, the City released its detailed report on undervalued commercial properties. You can read the full report here. The panelists at the Tax Appraisal Forum discussed this blistering report, as well as details on the flawed tax appraisal system here in Texas. The cards are stacked so heavily against residential homeowners that the situation qualifies as a national disgrace. There are risks associated with the contemplated action by the City of filing a formal appeal to the Travis Central Appraisal District. The appeal could cause a delay in certifying this year’s tax rolls. Over 100 area taxing jurisdictions have been asked to weigh in on the appeal decision. But if the City indeed makes good on its formal challenge, the entire State of Texas would sit up and take notice. Fighting for justice can be a treacherous battle, just like any battle throughout history for a noble cause.

Affordability in Austin has reached an epic tipping point. You will see in the video of the panel discussion, that the citizens who spoke during the Q&A displayed emotions ranging from frustration to full-on anger. The appraisal inequities are only part of a bigger picture. Austin is growing at a breakneck speed, putting unprecedented pressure on home values and rents. Unlike businesses of all sizes, cities and counties do not carefully plan the pace of their growth. They do not add up the costs of all of their combined expansion plans that taxpayers go into debt and pay annual taxes to fund. It is more a matter of “build first and ask questions later.” That path, as everyone knows, can and often does result in spectacular boom and bust cycles. Perhaps we can convince our local officials to conduct a “Pre-Mortem” to determine how much we the citizens can realistically afford to pay for the cost of growth. And at what pace that growth can be deemed to be “affordable” for anyone but the most wealthy amongst us.

The State of Texas does not require sales price disclosure on either residential or commercial properties. We are one of only a few states that lacks this requirement. This sets up the flawed appraisal protest system, where the big boys can out-lawyer and out-spend not only the average homeowner, but the Appraisal Districts as well. Believe it or not, any cases that the Appraisal Districts lose in court require them to pay the commercial property owners’ legal fees. But if the case is decided in favor of us lowly taxpayers, we still have to pay the people’s side of the legal fees. The scales of justice are as titled as they can be. Attempts at reform during the current Legislative session went mostly nowhere, just as they have in every previous session going back for eons.

If you have a strong enough stomach, try to make yourself comfortable and watch this informative video on the inequity issues in our tax appraisal system. Thanks to the good folks at Real Values for Texas for their tireless efforts to push for reforms.

Austin To Consider Challenging Commercial Property Appraisals

By Bill Oakey – May 19, 2015

The City of Austin will decide within less than two weeks whether to formally challenge the tax appraisals of non-residential commercial properties. This would be a landmark event that comes as very welcome news. For far too long, commercial property owners have enjoyed the benefit of special loopholes under Texas law that allow them to gain property tax appraisals that often equate to only 60% of their true market value.

Texas is one of a tiny handful of states that do not require sales disclosure of properties after completed real estate transactions. This creates a tremendous burden on tax appraisal districts. It is much harder for them to determine actual market value of many commercial properties than it is for residential units. Residential units can be appraised in bulk, because of common characteristics in residential neighborhoods. But commercial properties vary widely in all sorts of respects, causing appraisals districts to face lots of challenges in trying to accurately estimate the market value of every building within their jurisdictions.

in Travis County, 90% of commercial property owners challenge their appraisals, and they often take their cases to court. The deep pockets of the big corporations dwarf the budget of the appraisal district, creating a very unlevel playing field. Many of the very same companies that receive tax subsidies to locate in Austin turn around and protest their tax appraisals, shifting the burden to residential taxpayers. The whole picture does not bode well for the beleaguered homeowners who have seen their tax appraisals shoot through the roof in the last few years.

A Great Big Thank You to Mayor Pro-Tem Kathie Tovo and Council Members Ann Kitchen, Ellen Troxclair Don Zimmerman!

These four City Council members have co-sponsored a resolution for Tuesday May 19th  to formally challenge this year’s tax appraisals for large commercial properties. A final decision on whether to file a challenge must be made before June 1st. The City has been studying and preparing for this potential action since last year. Of course there are risks that tax collections might be delayed. Bold actions always come with risks. But a fight for fairness is always a noble fight! One might ask, why doesn’t the Texas Legislature pass better laws to close the loopholes enjoyed by the rich and powerful? (silly question).

And one might say that commercial property owners might just raise their prices to their customers if they were suddenly required to pay their fair share of property taxes. But I have a much different outlook on the situation. Why should good, hard working average citizens be taxed out of their socks, year after year, while the big boys skate by without paying their fair share? I’m not the least bit concerned about how tough the fight is. The fact that we have new people on the City Council who are bold enough to stand up for the taxpayers is something to celebrate. I support the City Council resolution. Let the battle begin!

You Are Invited to a Property Tax Appraisal Forum

Dear Travis County Resident,

Commissioner Brigid Shea invites you to the Property Tax Appraisal Forum on Tuesday, May 19th from 6:00-8:00pm at the First Unitarian Universalist Church (4700 Grover Ave; 78757).

The forum will provide information on the current status of tax appraisals and the efforts underway to ease the burden on homeowners. The speakers will address concerns and provide information that you may need for appeals and exemptions, as well as an update on current legislation.

Speakers Include:

Brigid Shea, Travis County Commissioner

Kathie Tovo, City of Austin Mayor Pro Tem

Bruce Elfant, Travis County Tax Assessor

Marya Crigler, Travis Central Appraisal District Chief Appraiser

Dick Levine, Center for Public Policy Priorities

Leigh Murrin, Real Values for Texas

Sincerely,

Brigid Shea
Travis County Commissioner, Precinct 2
Address: 700 Lavaca, Ste.2.700, Austin, Texas
Phone: 512-854-1489
Email: Brigid.Shea@traviscountytx.gov
Twitter and Facebook: CommishShea

Watch The Austin Training Video, “Women Leading In Local Government”

By Bill Oakey – May 14, 2015

The world of Austin politics exploded this week when the Austin American-Statesman broke a shocking story about a City management training session on Women Leading In Local Government. The firestorm erupted when all seven of the newly elected female City Council members found out what their own city’s executive staff did. Not only did they allow a condescending approach toward women to be presented in a training session, but they turned around and defended such a thing after the fact. As of today, one assistant city manager, Anthony Snipes, has already been suspended over the fiasco.

According to the training speaker brought in from Florida, women “ask too many questions” and they “have no interest in financial matters.” Well, as an affordability advocate for the past few years, I can tell you this much about the women on the Austin City Council. Don’t mess with them unless you have your facts straight. The best representation of financial expertise would be Mayor Pro-Tem Kathie Tovo. She has served very well as Chair of the Audit and Finance Committee. Council Member Delia Garza chairs the Regional Affordability Committee. Any doubters of feminine fortitude and financial forthrightness should also take note of Leslie Pool, Ora Houston, Ann Kitchen, Sheri Gallo and Ellen Troxclair.

Rather than repeat the details of the widely circulated news story, I will point you here to the full video of the training session. 

You can also watch the “Revenge of the Seven” as they spoke to the news media about their frustration.

Can We Afford To Sustain The Austin Boom? The Numbers Say No

By Bill Oakey – May 12, 2015

I will never forget the time that I was standing on the shore, gazing out across the beautiful, peaceful sea. Then it started coming, slowly at first, until the sound of its engines overwhelmed me. It was a huge airplane, slicing through the previously silent sky, with an ominous roar. Suddenly the plane dipped and I saw the flames. It was all too real! Was I actually about to witness a crash? Fortunately, I did not fall out of bed. The nightmare just jolted me awake.

On May 11th, the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) approved their 2040 Transportation Plan. To the tune of $35.1 billion. That divides out to $1.4 billion every year for 25 years in a row. The Austin area shares the biggest chunk of that burden. And somehow we have to pay for it all.

Our CTRMA toll road authority got a bond rating upgrade last fall…all the way up to BBB and BBB-. Their ambitious plans for both North MoPac and South MoPac call for adding express lanes with high-cost variable tolls that favor the wealthy. But expensive transportation plans are just the beginning.

The shelves in several local offices are bulging with lots of other plans. Travis County’s Downtown Campus Plan and the City’s Downtown Austin plan are already underway. In fact the “Congress Avenue Urban Design Initiative” kicks off on May 20th. You are invited to come and witness the plan to transform Congress into the Champs Élysées of Texas.

Parts of some of these plans are essential, for repairs to aging infrastructure. But just close your eyrs and try to imagine a giant list of plans for every “corridor” of the city. We have an Urban Forestry Plan, a new Aquatics Plan, and an untold number of others – some probably still being “planned.” We have City plans, County plans, Central Health, ACC, AISD, utilty expansions, etc. A new hospital to replace Brackenridge, a new Erwin Center.

One of my affordability goals is to ask for a master list of plans that would include an itemization of costs, with the grand total and the yearly cost to taxpayers. There is little doubt that those figures will be completely unsustainable. That means our public officials will need to set some priorities. The stampede toward Austin from all four corners of the Earth may not end well.

it makes me think about the march of the brooms.

Does anybody remember the story of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice?” Maybe there is a great sorcerer out there with enough power to make Austin’s boom last forever. Maybe he can even help us defy gravity. But what if the Great Sorcerer steps away. And we are left with his bumbling apprentice to control all of those brooms – the cars and the plans?  They just keep multiplying, they just keep coming.

You can watch “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” on YouTube.

And I have one other musical option. I will warn you – this is a sad story. It’s about bumping head-on into a sobering reality, with a lead character who is a little bit less than sober. It’s an old country song by Porter Wagoner, “The Cold Hard Facts of Life.”

Holy Cow! Dallas Also Embroiled In Toll-Road-In-The-Park Battle

By Bill Oakey – May 8, 2015

Thursday night’s Austin City Council hearing on toll lanes over Lady Bird Lake brought back fond memories of grass-roots citizens coming together to fight for the Save Our Springs Ordinance (SOS) back in the early 90’s. The overwhelming majority of last night’s speakers do not want a double-decker bridge with unaffordable surge-priced tolls built over Lady Bird Lake.

Highlights from the meeting included Travis County Commissioner and SOS co-founder, Brigid Shea, reading a letter from Luci Baines Johnson. The crowd in the Council Chambers went wild! Several speakers pointed out that major cities around the world are now or have been removing highways from parks and waterways. These include Seattle, Portland, Boston, Singapore and even Seoul, South Korea.

When the dust settled and all the speakers had made their appeals, newly elected Mayor, Steve Adler, shined like a beacon. He spoke eloquently of Lady Bird Lake, Zilker Park and Auditorium Shores being the “Crown Jewels of Austin.” No one who engaged with him could match his grasp of the details. There wasn’t a person in the room who could match Adler’s acumen for citing Federal regulations, previous CAMPO grant application language or any other minute details. (My own whimsical thoughts of challenging the Mayor to a game of Scrabble have been placed on hold indefinitely).

After lengthy discussions and much nitpicking over the wording, the City Council voted 9 to 2 to adopt a resolution calling for an independent City study of alternatives for the road’s size and location. The resolution also calls upon the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO), to work closely with City officials in their own study, which is already underway. Importantly, the resolution does not call for abandoning the road project altogether. Many speakers supporting the single option of four toll lanes over Lady Bird Lake characterized the Council resolution as nothing more than an environmentalist attack on traffic relief for South Austin.

Take a Look At What’s Happening In Dallas!

It turns out that the good people of Dallas are fighting a very similar battle. And it will all come to a head in a big City Council election happening tomorrow (Saturday May 9th). Take a look at the article below:

Poll finds Dallasites’ support for toll road within Trinity River levees tepid

 Follow @brandonformby bformby@dallasnews.com

Transportation Writer, Dallas Morning News

April 22, 2015

As the size of the Trinity Parkway grew in recent years, so did a chasm between how Dallas residents and top city officials view the controversial toll road, a poll by The Dallas Morning News shows.