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.
How can we make part of the deal that if we get commercial property taxes to go up, personal property taxes will go down? I’m certain the City will just claim they need the extra money or we will have to close down the fire department(see Ott’s recent comments).
Excellent question. I think the new City Council realizes that Austin taxpayers have reached a tipping point. But there’s nothing better than large numbers of frustrated taxpayers keeping up the pressure on all elected officials in the Austin area. Watch this blog and other similar forums for public hearing announcements and other opportunities to let your collective voices be heard.
What is the solution that you would suggest Bill Oakley?
The City should go forward with the appeal. Staff from all of the taxing entities should assist the Travis Central Appraisal District in the clerical duties required for the delayed tax roll certification. If no action is taken on this issue, the gross inequities will persist and could even worsen over time.