Tarrant County property values remain sluggish, with about 49 percent of homeowners seeing a drop in appraised value for 2011, according to preliminary data from the Tarrant Appraisal District.
Overall, the county's total valuation gained about 1 percent. Although the final figure is likely to be lower after protests, the trend is flat. And for government officials, flat sounds fine after a year of belt-tightening brought on by a 1 percent decline in 2010 that cut tax revenue by $1 billion.
Last year, about 80 percent of single-family-home owners saw their property values decline. It was the first overall drop in valuation in Tarrant County since 1993.
"What I'm anticipating is that flat is going to be good," Chief Appraiser Jeff Law said Thursday. "There's a possibility of a small downward trend, but the preliminary numbers appear to show an increase. I'm hopeful."
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About 15 percent of the county's 630,000 homeowners will see an increase of up to $7,000. About 5 percent will see an increase above $7,000. The rest are unchanged from a year ago, said Law, noting that the preliminary data is unadjusted for protests and homestead exemptions.
Overall, county property values stagnated, with few entities posting increases or decreases beyond 2 percent.
Just 13 cities saw an increase, with a median gain of 2.3 percent. Haslet saw the largest increase in property values, at about 7 percent, or $35.9 million, according to the preliminary TAD data.
More telling was the number of cities that saw a drop in value: 27.
Sansom Park led the way with a drop of $6.4 million, or 6.2 percent. Other cities losing at least 5 percent of property value were Richland Hills, 5.5 percent ($23.7 million), and Westworth Village, 5.2 percent ($7.9 million).
Of all taxing entities, the Hurst-Euless-Bedford school district lost the most value -- $122.8 million, though that accounts for only 1.4 percent of its $8.5 billion tax base.
Tarrant County's hospital district, college district and county government all added value of at least $1.2 billion. However, that wasn't enough to make up for last year's decreases. Net taxable-value losses were $5.5 billion to $5.7 billion, as those entities each lost at least 4.6 percent.
"It may not be what you would call good news, but it isn't bad news," County Judge Glen Whitley said. A 1 percent decline would mean a reduction of about $3.2 million in revenue for county government, he said.
"I really expected a 1 or 2 percent decline. This indicates that the economy might be coming back," Whitley said.
TAD is warning taxing entities to expect additional losses of 2 to 5 percent after property tax protests are filed. They will receive final numbers in July.
Reactions from city officials ranged from relief to dismay.
Officials in Fort Worth greeted the news of a 2.3 percent increase in property values with guarded optimism.
City management had forecast flat growth from July 2010 to July 2011 and doesn't expect material change in that projection.
Policymakers grappled with a $77 million shortfall last year, and the city staff projects a $30 million gap this coming year.
"This is good news, and we're pleased to hear it," interim City Manager Tom Higgins said. "But we also know those numbers can change through the protest and adjustment periods, so it is too early to say what it will mean to our upcoming budget process.
"Clearly, though, it is better to be 2.31 percent up than 2.31 percent down."
Richland Hills City Manager James Quinn said he was shocked that the preliminary data showed a 5.48 percent decline. "I think we have a really good community here," he said. "The values should have been retained and not dropped that much. We have relatively stable neighborhoods."
In Arlington, taxable values fell just 0.2 percent, but budget manager Mike Finley said the city expects a decline of 1.5 to 2 percent. Those projections would result in a $2 million loss in property tax revenue.
"It's tough but it's not any tougher than we expected," Finley said. "It's still a challenging budget. We still have some hard decisions to make."
In Everman, where values were down nearly 11 percent last year, City Manager Donna Anderson said she was encouraged that values fell only 0.06 percent.
"I thought it would go down again. This is a relief," she said.
Among all taxing entities, the Northwest school district, which includes parts of Tarrant, Denton and Wise counties, gained the most value -- $546.2 million, or 12.39 percent.
Among other school districts, Fort Worth gained 1.77 percent, Arlington rose 0.36 percent, and Grapevine-Colleyville added 2.84 percent. Districts that lost tax value included Castleberry (2.34 percent), White Settlement (2.3 percent) and H-E-B (1.44 percent).
Jon Graswich, chief financial officer for the Northwest district, said property appraisals, especially preliminary ones, "make absolutely no difference to the general operating fund." Property value revenue increases go to the state, not the local school district, he said.
Though the Arlington district saw taxable values rise slightly, district officials expect a 4 percent drop in value from last year. That could mean the loss of about $1 million in combined property tax revenue and state aid for the district, which is already projecting a $14 million shortfall, said Cindy Powell, associate superintendent of finance.
"We are still waiting to see what the state will do with our funding formulas," said Powell, adding that district leaders are working hard to keep expected budget cuts from affecting the classroom. "It is hard to get a good feel for what revenues are going to be this year."
The deadline for homeowners to file property appraisal protests is May 31.
In 2009, when the real estate market was reeling, TAD had a record 92,000 protests. That number declined to 72,000 in 2010, Law said.
With many homeowners seeing declines over the last two years, Law said he hopes that the number of protests will also drop.
Staff writers Terry Evans, John Henry, Shirley Jinkins and Susan Schrock contributed to this report.
Steve Campbell, 817-390-7981
Darren Barbee, 817-390-7126