Property taxes are a red-hot topic this summer in Texas. More than 20 related bills have been filed for the Texas Legislature’s special session.
But a fundamental problem — the appraisal system — has been largely ignored. In fact, our state’s deeply flawed mass appraisal process is a major driver of the rapid increase in tax bills.
First, there’s the sheer volume of properties the appraisal districts must evaluate each year. For example, in Harris County there are approximately 5,500 parcels for each appraiser or analyst working for the appraisal district. That works out to about 22 parcels per day — or almost three parcels per hour — year-round, for each appraiser or analyst working a five-day week. That is an impossible volume of work.
Is it any wonder that many appraisals wind up being wildly inaccurate? Establishing a realistic ratio of properties per appraiser would be a useful step toward increased appraisal accuracy.
Meanwhile, the Texas appraisal system unfairly burdens the property owner with the cost of proving their case even when the appraisal district’s
assessed value is incomplete or inaccurate. Inaccurate appraisals are a direct result of high-volume workloads because appraisal districts lump properties into categories, ratios and valuations that don’t always make sense for a specific property.
So, if you don’t like the valuation assigned to your property, you can protest it or even sue your appraisal district. You either suck it up and pay the taxes on your overvalued property or pay to go through the protest process and potentially file a lawsuit.
Essentially, you fund the appraisal district’s budget through your taxes — and pay again to prove it when they overvalue your property. Seems like a stacked deck, doesn’t it?
Businesses and property managers are usually the only taxpayers who can afford the costs of arguing their valuation. This creates a perfect opening for the common talking point that homeowners are forced to carry the burden when businesses fight their appraisals. However, it’s the flawed process that forces busin
esses to fight for fairness and accuracy in the first place.
No property owner wants to go down the path of litigation, though litigation often resolves disputes quickly because it allows more time to evaluate the property and its specifics. The extremely rushed appraisal and protest process is simply too compressed to be of much use.
Fairness in the system would improve — and litigation would be reduced — with some real transparency in the appraisal review boards and processes. It’s time to hold appraisal boards accountable by making those positions elected, not appointed. It’s also time for these boards to include taxpayer representatives.
In addition, before we talk about rates, fixes, caps or anything else, we need to strengthen the requirements for serving on an appraisal review board. The boards are typically composed of retired Texans with little or no experience in real estate, cap rates, expense ratios, national debt and lending trends. That needs to change.
Until reform happens, commercial and personal property owners in Texas need to use all the tools currently available. Filing a protest is one tool — but the protest process is inherently tilted in the appraisal district’s favor because of its far-too-cozy relationship with the review board.
When a protest doesn’t produce a fair and accurate number, the final option is to take the appraisal district to court. That’s a sure way to expose the deep flaws in the appraisal system — and to put the appraisal districts on notice that taxpayers are ready to fight back.
Patel is the managing partner of a San Antonio law firm and an adjunct professor at the University of Houston.