Northeast Tarrant

Lawsuit could hamper Tarrant County protests over property value

FORT WORTH STAR-TELEGRAM

A pending lawsuit in another Texas county may put some taxpayers at a disadvantage this year when filing a protest with the Tarrant Appraisal District over the value of their homes, businesses and other property.

Last week, TAD officials reported that the value of residential property in Tarrant County has increased about 14 percent this year, which could trigger a significant number of protests.

The lawsuit in Travis County District Court has put a clamp on historical data that can be used as factual evidence in a protest hearing with the appraisal district.

We’re dedicated to fighting this. We’re not backing down one bit.

Bill Aleshire, open-government attorney

“This is a big threat to taxpayers in Texas and especially to taxpayers here in Tarrant County,” said Bill Aleshire, an Austin open-government attorney who was hired to try to pry loose the information on behalf of a client.

“We’re dedicated to fighting this,” Aleshire said. “We’re not backing down one bit.”

The Tarrant Appraisal District’s attorney, Todd Clark, said TAD has provided “a great deal of information” to satisfy the requirements under the law. Any further data release is tied up in the lawsuit, filed in September by the district’s software licensing vendors, Clark said.

In October, a Travis County district judge granted a temporary injunction ordering that the data be withheld.

The software and cost data providers, including Thomson Reuters and Marshall & Swift/Boeckh, say the information is proprietary and its release would cause the entities “substantial competitive harm.” TAD holds a licensing agreement with Marshall & Swift/Boeckh for its cost data. Thomson Reuters incorporates that data to provide appraisal software to TAD.

“At this point, my client can only sit and wait for the process to conclude,” Clark said. “We will participate in the process fully, but we have to let the process continue.”

John P. McDonald, Marshall & Swift/Boeckh’s Dallas counsel, did not respond to requests for comment.

Appraisals sent

Last year, property values in Tarrant County went up 5 percent, in part because problems with the new software prevented the district from accurately appraising some properties in the county.

Of the county’s 600,000 real property owners, 5 to 10 percent, on average, file a protest hearing every year, tax experts say. The Star-Telegram reported in October that 65,000 protests had been filed, down from 71,000 in 2014.

Appraisers say the problems have been addressed going into this appraisal season.

We will participate in the process fully, but we have to let the process continue.

Todd Clark, attorney for Tarrant Appraisal District

Last week, TAD mailed notices to residential property owners whose values are going up more than $1,000 this year. Property owners with homestead exemptions are protected from increases of more than 10 percent, said Jeff Law, TAD’s chief appraiser. TAD has about 580,000 residential accounts.

All other property owners should receive notices by May 15.

Owners then have until May 31 to file a protest to counter “any adverse action” by the appraisal district, which includes a change value or exemption status or incorrect owner name.

The protest is filed with TAD’s review board, which is a three-member panel of appointed public officials who settle the appeals similar to a court of law.

The Appraisal Review Board must provide the property owner 15-day notice before a hearing.

During an appeal, the chief appraiser has an opportunity to present his or her findings. The owner also has that opportunity.

It is then up to the Appraisal Review Board to make a final determination.

The basis of an appeal must lie on an owner’s ability to make an argument that the chief appraiser’s office made an error. To do this, the owner typically provides evidence of values based on comparable data of properties.

‘Proprietary interests’

In April 2015, state property tax agent Susan K. Bawcom asked TAD for the data in question under a request she made under the Texas Public Information Act. Bawcom, of Creative Data Consulting of Austin, said every year she asks for the same data from large state appraisal districts, like Tarrant County.

“I get this information from the major appraisal districts in the state of Texas on a regular basis,” Bawcom said. “I get it from Dallas County, from Travis, Bexar, Williamson County.”

The data in question includes such things as essential square footage, improvements, quality, conditions and other components that make up value, Bawcom said.

Bawcom, like other property tax agents, mostly does business with commercial entities who own large swaths of property valued in the millions. Those owners seek to hire experts like Bawcom to seek tax relief.

After Bawcom filed her request, TAD did not immediately release the data.

Instead, Law sought a legal opinion from the Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton over whether the data was subject to disclosure by law. Law told Paxton’s office that Marshall & Swift and Thomson Reuters could object to the release of the data based on “proprietary interests.”

Data ‘kept secret’

In August, Paxton’s office ordered TAD to release large portions of the data. TAD’s vendors responded by suing TAD and Paxton’s office.

Bawcom then hired Aleshire to intervene on her behalf to try to pry the data loose. She said she was shocked when the data “was kept secret.” She said she can’t adequately represent property owners without such basic data.

“As a practical matter, how can I cast any doubt on a value if I can’t get the information of how the appraisal district arrived at the information?” Bawcom said.

Aleshire said the data includes “crucial details that you need to attack the chief appraiser’s values when they make a mistake.”

Clark, who represents TAD, said the appraisal district will do whatever is ordered by law.

“It’s up to the court to let us know what our obligations are,” Clark said.

State law requires that all valuations be fair and equitable.

Yamil Berard: 817-390-7705, @yberard

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