In the eternal realms of death and taxes, very little is as confounding and contradictory as property tax appraisals. When our residential or commercial property is duly assessed for taxation, we cry out if it’s valued too high. If we sell the same property for profit, we indignantly resist any offer we judge too low.
This natural tension prompts little consensus and lots of confrontation, some of it spilling over into shameless grandstanding by both politicians and constituents.
For instance, take the touring Texas Senate Committee on Property Tax Reform and Relief hearing in Houston in May. It was expected that, before state legislators got too deep into testimony about tax rates and property tax appraisals, someone would sound the revolutionary cry.
Consider this salvo from a taxpayer rankled that appraisal district boards are appointed rather than elected and that he couldn’t vote anyway on matters involving property he owned in counties beyond that in which he lived: “To me, this is the equivalent of taxation without representation. I believe our Revolutionary War was fought against Britain for this exact same reason.”
Proposals naturally included entirely scrapping property taxes in Texas in favor of an even stiffer sales tax — an idea ripe with possibilities, all of them chaotic. To his credit, Republican state Sen. Charles Perry reminded the crowd that Texas already lacks a state income tax. That might well be one reason our property taxes are so high.
The tenor was far more respectful and restrained on July 27 when some 20 local business leaders aired concerns to the McLennan County Appraisal District board over what they claimed were wildly inflated values assigned to commercial properties downtown. Some had initially feared that, at least before valuations were revised downward, tax bills from taxing entities could snuff out long-awaited downtown revitalization.
While protests formal and informal in recent weeks whittled preliminary valuations significantly, some business and civic leaders nonetheless grumbled at appraisal district tactics in the absence of hard data: setting valuations on the high end, enough that panicky or angry property owners brought to appraisal officials more detailed information, allowing them to reset property valuations more accurately.
“It would seem feasible to say that most of the taxing entities only want fair valuations and the taxes that result from those,” an outraged civic leader told me afterward. “Unless you heard something differently, the process described today was far from fair. It may be the method in place, but there must be a better method somewhere.”
There is. Appraisal district officials insist they’re handicapped in setting proper valuations at market value — as required by law — because Texas is one of 12 states that don’t require property owners to disclose real-estate sale prices. And that can be like trying to tax one’s income without knowing how much he or she earned or levying a sales tax without first knowing the cost of the item sold.
Common sense would dictate state legislators require such disclosure in the interest of taxable property being appraised as close as possible to fair market value. However, this ignores hard realities: the real estate lobby has little interest in such disclosures. And it has the deep pockets necessary for legislators to see things its way.
Efforts to change state law have failed so far. For instance, a 2007 task force charged by then-Gov. Rick Perry proposed some form of disclosure, but legislators ignored the idea. A lawsuit filed by the city of Austin last year sought to force the issue but flopped. One bone of contention in all of this: the suggestion that commercial businesses hiding their true market values means the tax burden then gets shifted onto unwary homeowners.
Yet optimism springs eternal. Savvy City Center Waco executive director Megan Henderson suggested during the July 27 meeting that downtown property owners and appraisers should have more communication early in the appraisal process about information that could yield fair appraisals. Given that most of us naturally fear offering appraisers anything early on that might justify their hiking our property values, this “front-end” plan has possibilities but only if Henderson can defy the odds and orchestrate such cooperation. In expectation that little relief in regard to sales-price disclosure is likely from lawmakers, Henderson’s idea might be the best we can hope for.