With the deadline for paying property taxes fast approaching, the Tarrant Appraisal District has slashed the number of cases awaiting final orders from protested appraisals from 1,300 to fewer than 100.
TAD works closely with the Tarrant Appraisal Review Board to establish property values. Taxing entities can’t issue tax bills without the documents, and while property taxes are not due until Jan. 31, many people prefer to pay what they owe by year’s end to qualify for a federal income tax reduction.
In November, property tax consultants described the backlog of 1,300 final orders as a “nightmare,” saying hundreds of their clients had not received the documents needed to determine their taxes after filing protests. They also said that some of the final orders issued contained inaccurate information.
TAD Chief Appraiser Jeff Law blamed the delays on miscommunication with the consultants and problems with the district’s computer software. The software had already been blamed with leaving property off the tax rolls and causing a surge of taxpayer refunds late this year after it didn’t catch critical changes in accounts.
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“The tax agent community has been cooperative with TAD and we have resolved most of these issues and provided final orders to those agents,” Law said in an email. “As we prepare for the 2017 appraisal year, TAD is reviewing ways to improve efficiencies in the appraisal board review process.”
This appraisal district software is creating all kinds of heartaches for us.
Stephen Dunson at IntegraTax in Fort Worth
While the law does not mandate that a final order be sent within a certain time, he is adding staff to focus on protest filings, reschedules and printing final orders, he said. Anyone with a late protest, or an unresolved appraisal issue, will be given more time to pay without penalty and interest, he said.
Repeated attempts by the Star-Telegram to reach appraisal review board Chairman Olen Frazier for comment were unsuccessful. Appraisal district board Chairman Joe Potthoff also did not respond to emailed questions from the newspaper.
Tarrant County Tax Assessor-Collector Ron Wright said the late notices have not been a problem for his office — he simply recommends to those who have not received a statement to pay an estimated amount based on the initial appraisal notice they received from TAD. Adjustments can be made later, he said.
As we prepare for the 2017 appraisal year, TAD is reviewing ways to improve efficiencies in the appraisal board review process.
TAD Chief Appraiser Jeff Law
If hiring more people is part of the solution, the appraisal district’s board of directors will likely support it, said Wright, an ex-officio member who attends their meetings but can’t vote.
“I think the board would want to solve the problem and if the solution is more people then that is the direction you go,” Wright said. “I don’t think anybody on the board would argue with a recommendation for additional resources.”
Stephen Dunson at IntegraTax in Fort Worth said the appraisal district has whittled down the 230 or so clients he had without a final order to just a few. He is convinced that the new software is part of the problem, because before its use, most of his tax protest cases were settled by September.
“This appraisal district software is creating all kinds of heartaches for us,” Dunson said. “So far I’m happy with the progress they’ve made. There is more to be done, but I’m happy so far.”
Property owners started filing protests in the spring after receiving notices from the appraisal district that set the value of their land and any improvements on it, such as a house, for taxing purposes. This year, about 103,000 property owners or their agents filed protests, double the usual amount.
But not everyone who protested their appraisal gets, or needs, a final order. Some protests are withdrawn, and others are settled with TAD without going before the appraisal review board for a hearing. Before the issue of the delayed documents was raised, the review board had issued 56,000 final orders.
During a meeting in November TAD board members heard from property tax agents who said they and their clients were receiving final orders months after a decision was made by an appraisal review board panel after hearing their protests. Agents presented Law with a list of 919 accounts that were still outstanding.
Considering that the county has about 1.6 million accounts, the review board felt it had done a good job in a year when more protests were filed.
But during a meeting in November, TAD board members heard from property tax agents who said they and their clients were receiving final orders months after a decision was made by an appraisal review board panel. Agents presented Law with a list of 919 outstanding accounts.
Understandably, more protests generated more final orders, Law said. Still, there was more feeding into the confusion.
In some cases, the authorization to release the information to the property tax consultants had expired or had been revoked by the owner, Law said. There also were instances where the property had been sold after a protest was filed and resolved before the final order was printed, and where a staff member had not correctly coded the authorization in the system.
TAD also found that, on fewer than 200 accounts, the authorization to release the information was “unexpectedly expired” by the computer system. Eventually, Thomson Reuters, the vendor that has provided TAD with the software, was told about this problem, Law said.
Another software glitch involved a request from TAD to modify the final order document. Property owners and tax agents typically raise several points in protesting their valuations, resulting in the issuance of an individual order for each issue. TAD wanted the software to produce one final order covering it all.
This adjustment took longer than anticipated, Law said, leading to a delay in which only 2,600 final orders had been processed by the end of July. As the year rolled on, the number grew. By Sept. 3, TAD and the review board issued 33,286 final orders with 22,700 more in October and November, Law said.
They messed it up royally
Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley on the TAD software conversion
The review board still has hearings to conduct, and property owners can file motions for corrections until Jan. 31 — those cases would be separate from the 1,300 initially identified.
Law has previously said that the appraisal district has been tough on Thomson Reuters because of the problems. The agency agreed to pay $1.9 million for the software in 2011 but has withheld about $806,000. Thomson Reuters has reimbursed TAD about $794,000 for late implementation.
Thomson Reuters has and will continue to work closely with TAD to resolve such issues expeditiously.
Paul Thies, Thomson Reuters spokesman
“We expect that any system issue relating to this matter will not be an issue in the 2017 appraisal year,” Law said.
Thomson Reuters will work with TAD to resolve such issues “expeditiously,” a company official said.
“A software transition of the size and scope undertaken by TAD requires Thomson Reuters and its clients to communicate frequently, often multiple times a day,” Paul Thies, vice president of corporate communications in Carrollton, said in a statement. “As with any software implementation, issues will be encountered and adjustments may be needed based on changed circumstances and requirements.”
‘Messed it up royally’
An audit commissioned by the review board criticized both TAD’s leadership and Thomson Reuters over the software conversion, saying that the agency did not clearly outline business and technical requirements and did not adequately test the software before flipping the switch to turn it on.
Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley said he was not surprised by the findings and hopes that it will lead to some changes at the district.
“They messed it up royally,” Whitley said, adding that he hopes the TAD board will “look at all the facts and evaluate how they got into the position they are in” and decide if someone should be held accountable. If this had happened at his company, “somebody would have been gone,” Whitley said.
Dunson said he has talked to Law more in the last month and a half than usual. And while he is pleased with the progress, he and others plan to take action. A group he belongs to — Citizens for Appraisal Reform — is working on legislation to make it a requirement to issue a final order within 15 days of the formal hearing.
Texas lawmakers are considering a sweeping property tax reform and relief bill 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.