Some West residents may end up paying taxes this year on homes that no longer exist.
Residents whose homes were damaged or destroyed in the April 17 West Fertilizer Co. explosion have until the end of May to protest the appraisals on which property taxes are based.
But under state law, appraisal values are supposed to reflect the value of the property on Jan. 1 of the tax year. That means the McLennan County Appraisal District isn’t authorized to take into account damage to the property since then, Chief Appraiser Drew Hahn said.
Hahn said his office is encouraging affected residents to file a protest anyway, allowing them to meet personally with an appraiser and seek a value adjustment. Afterward, they can take their case to the Appraisal Review Board, which is independent of the appraisal district staff.
“We’re going to do everything we can to work with them,” Hahn said. “But we’re duty-bound to follow the law, and we get audited by the State Comptroller’s Office.”
Hahn said that Section 23.03 of the Texas Property Tax Code allows local governments to authorize reappraisals after natural disasters, but the fertilizer plant explosion wouldn’t qualify.
Hahn estimated that West lost at least $29 million in taxable value as a result of the blast, not counting damage to nontaxable property such as schools, water tanks and infrastructure.
That amount represents more than one-fifth of West’s tax base of $140.4 million, according to preliminary values. Hahn said losing that much revenue this year would hobble the finances of the city and West Independent School District when they need the money the most.
West Mayor Tommy Muska said he is well aware of the dilemma. His home, valued at $351,284 last year, was badly damaged in the blast and may cost $300,000 to repair, he said.
“We’ve told citizens to go ahead and file protests, but it’s a double-edged sword for me,” he said. “I know what I pay for property tax, and it’s a lot of money, but my house is not worth what it was before (April 17).
“As a mayor, I need the property values, but as a citizen, I don’t want to pay $9,000 of property tax on something that’s beat up.”
Muska said he already has filed to protest his values. Three council members and City Attorney Walter M. Reaves Jr. also suffered major damage to their homes.
Muska said he knows the disaster will pinch West’s budget, usually about $2 million. The city was planning to issue debt this summer to expand its sewer plant, using revenues from utility fees. But with water sales projected to drop 35 percent, he said that project will be postponed.
He said he doesn’t expect all the houses to be rebuilt by next January, when appraisals are determined for the next tax year.
“When you lose this many houses, there’s going to be some rebuilding going on, but some are not going to be built back,” he said. “It’s going to be four or five years before we get everything back to some kind of normal position.”
Meanwhile, the city needs revenue to hire a new city secretary to replace Joey Pustejovsky, who died in the blast, and another to fill the new position of business manager.
“We’re having to hire two people to do the job that one man did,” he said.
Hahn, the chief appraiser, said he and his staff are sympathetic to the situation that West homeowners face. He said that Pustejovsky’s widow works at the appraisal district, and one of the appraisers lost his home.