Incestuous county boards preside over rising Texas tax bills

By Kenric Ward

Watchdog.org

If your property taxes stink in Texas, they stink from the top down.

By state law, county appraisal districts (CADs) are tasked to do one thing: set the property values that raise revenue for local taxing agencies.

Headed by boards of directors, CADs are bureaucratically opaque, institutionally autonomous and fundamentally incestuous bodies with no effective public oversight.

County boards are composed of the elected local tax assessor-collector and a set of directors named by the very local government agencies that depend on tax proceeds from property appraisals.

See a conflict of interest there? State Sen. Paul Bettencourt and state Rep. Dade Phelan do.

Seeking to democratize the captive CADs, Bettencourt, R-Houston, proposes mandating that all directors be elected officials within their respective counties.

“This makes them directly answerable to the citizens,” Bettencourt said of provisions in SB 2. “If people don’t like the results, they can vote them out of office.”

Phelan goes a step further. The Jefferson County Republican wants to make CADs fully elected bodies — like city councils, county commissions and school boards.

“The people should pick,” Phelan said of his HB 495. “What we have now is taxation without representation.”

As currently constituted, CADs have the appearance of doing the bidding of the taxing units that nominate the CAD directors. That perception is fueled by a rising number of property tax protests filed and rejected each year.

Directors, in consultation with the county’s chief property appraiser (also appointed), select a local Appraisal Review Board to hear tax protests.

Critics of the system complain that no agency has functional authority over CADs. The state comptroller simply audits the books to see if the accounting is correct in an appraisal process that is highly subjective.

The Texas Comptroller’s office website declares its arms-length role upfront: “The Comptroller’s office does not have access to your local property appraisal or tax information. Questions about property appraisal or property tax should be addressed to your county’s appraisal district or tax assessor-collector.”

“People accuse [appraisal] districts of being in cahoots with local government,” Bexar County Chief Appraiser Mike Amezquita acknowledges, while denying the assertion.

But CADs’ sharply rising property valuations stoke suspicions that appraisal districts are the wholly owned tools of rapacious public bureaucracies. Skyrocketing appraisals that defy market realities have triggered a rising tide of lawsuitsagainst CADs, especially from commercial property owners.

When challenges go to independent arbitration, Amezquita says his office loses far more than it wins — a telling admission in a state that has the sixth-highest property taxes in the nation.

A record $23 billion in contested values is currently in arbitration in Bexar County. Other large Texas counties report similar trend lines and results.

Cheryl Johnson, the elected tax assessor-collector in Galveston County, said CADs’ fox-in-the-henhouse arrangement must be changed.

“If we are to have appraisal districts governed by a board of directors, we need ones answerable to the voters — not government. This is a no-brainer,” Johnson told Watchdog.

“The question is, do we really need appraisal districts at all?”

Kenric Ward writes for the Texas Bureau of Watchdog.org. Contact him at kward@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @Kenricward.

 

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