A sweeping property tax reform and relief bill was filed in Austin on Tuesday, designed to fight the statewide rise in property tax bills by increasing accountability of appraisal district officials and making it easier for taxpayers to challenge higher tax rates through ratification elections.
State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, filed Senate Bill 2 on the same day the select committee he chaired released a 90-page report that recommends a long list of changes. The report grew out of hearings the committee held in which taxpayers complained that their tax bills were rising faster than their ability to pay.
Average home property tax appraisals have risen 22-24 percent over the past two years in the Fort Worth and Dallas area and have gone up 20 percent in San Antonio during the same period, the committee reported. In Harris County, the average residential tax bill has shot up 36 percent in three years.
What we see is that values go up and tax rates don’t come down and tax bills go through the roof.
State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Property Tax Reform and Relief
At the same time, local taxing entities have not cut their tax rates enouch to blunt the sting of those increases on residents’ tax bills. The report indicates that from 2011 to 2015, city and county levies have gone up 14 percent in Fort Worth and as high as 52 percent in Harris County.
“What we see is that values go up and tax rates don’t come down and tax bills go through the roof,” Bettencourt, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Property Tax Reform and Relief, said at a news conference in Austin.
The Texas Municipal League immediately denounced the proposal, saying it would force cities statewide to cut their budgets in what the group said amounts to “a direct assault on public safety, economic development, and transportation.”
The bill touches on all aspects of the state property tax system, with the goal of simplification, clarification and transparency of the property tax appraisal system, Bettencourt said.
Among the bill’s recommendations is to cut in half the amount a tax rate may rise before triggering a rollback election. Currently, it takes an increase of more than 8 percent in the tax rate before taxpayers can call for a vote. In larger counties, 7 percent of the registered voters must sign the necessary petitions.
The proposed bill would cut the ratification level to 4 percent and remove petition requirements entirely. It also would dictate that the election be held in November to increase maximum exposure to the public.
“As values go up, tax rates need to come down. If they [local officials] want to go for a higher rate, they can schedule an election,” he said.
Tarrant County loomed large in the committee’s deliberations and recommendations, with Bettencourt saying a hearing in Arlington in April made it “crystal clear” that reform is needed. During that April hearing, Tarrant Appraisal District Chief Appraiser Jeff Law was grilled over problems with computer software that kept property off the books in 2015.
Recently, the same software was blamed for requiring Tarrant County taxing entities to issue $12 million in refunds after receiving faulty data from TAD that failed to show changes from homes being sold and changes in property values, among other things. It’s also been cited as a reason why some bills have still not been issued.
“Tarrant County is the number one most complained about county in the state,” Bettencourt said in an earlier interview with the Star-Telegram.
State Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, said Tarrant County “did stick out across the state as frankly a mess.” He said, despite assurances from local officials, that “he doesn’t know if it’s fixed yet.”
The bill also mandates members of each appraisal district board be elected officials within their respective counties, making them more answerable to the citizens. Currently, those members are appointed by the various taxing entities. It makes other recommendations about changing tax protest deadline dates.
It also would create a Property Tax Administration Advisory Board within the Texas Comptroller’s office to oversee the entire property tax process.