Cynthia M. Allen

Fed up with property taxes? Hold out hope for Austin, but prepare your protest

Angela White's appraisal notice in her home in Arlington on Tuesday, May 1, 2018.
Angela White's appraisal notice in her home in Arlington on Tuesday, May 1, 2018.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve been eagerly awaiting news that the Texas Legislature has passed and the governor has signed any measure that would rein in, reduce or provide property tax relief of some kind.

Boosting exemptions. Exchanging local sales tax revenue for property tax revenue. Capping rates. All of these sound like reasonable ideas when you’re staring down a tax bill that has jumped an alarming amount in the last 12 months.

Some of that increase, however disappointing, is understandable. The Texas economy is strong. The real estate market is booming.

Cities and counties are growing, and so are their financial needs.

Schools, roads and other infrastructure need adequate funding to sustain the kind of growth that makes Texas an attractive place to work and live.

But that’s a double-edged sword, because it means your property taxes may be growing at a rate faster than your income, and there’s a very real possibility that if things continue at this pace, you’ll be priced right out of your home.

And the reality is, there isn’t much lawmakers in Austin can do about it.

Even if the Legislature can muster the political will — and the votes — to take some sort of action, there’s no guarantee that your tax bill will decrease much, if at all.

That’s because state lawmakers don’t levy property taxes — local entities do — and as the Texas Tribune’s Ross Ramsey explains, “it has proved to be impossible for state lawmakers to lower taxes they don’t control.”

Why would this time be any different?

For all the ire and frustration directed at Austin, the folks responsible for raising and lowering property taxes are a lot closer to home. Tax appraisal districts determine how much land and buildings are worth and local government entities (like cities, counties and school districts) set the tax rates.

And much like lawmakers in Austin, there is a limited amount that we as taxpayers can do to control rates and appraisals.

While they wield an alarming amount of power over the finances of taxpayers, the appraisal districts in particular are subject to very little public accountability.

The governing boards are elected by the member taxing units — the school districts, the water districts, the hospital districts, etc. — and this extra degree of separation essentially shields them from the whims of voters. They can’t be voted out of office by angry taxpayers.

But it also protects them from the kind of scrutiny any entity with a hand in collecting taxpayer dollars deserves.

For example, I’m still trying to understand how neighboring houses, of similar size and condition, can be assessed at such wildly different values in the same tax year. Of course, the burden is on the taxpayer to prove why the assessment is wrong by way of a time-consuming protest effort that has become a kind of bizarre annual ritual for taxpayers all over the state.

Maybe it’s just me, but that seems a little backward for a state that supposedly values limited government and rejects unreasonable government burdens.

Texas has one of the highest property tax burdens in the country — only a few spots behind New Jersey, which is notorious for having the nation’s highest property tax rates.

If Texas also had consistently well-rated schools and infrastructure, that burden might be easier to bear, at least intellectually. The fact that it doesn’t makes the lack of accountability and the lack of taxpayer control all the more frustrating.

I used to live in Washington, D.C., where the license plates bear a refrain common among the citizenry: “Taxation without representation.”

But since moving to Texas, and watching my appraised value and tax rate rise inexplicably, I feel like this mantra applies in the Lone Star state just as much, at least when it comes to my property tax bill.

I’m still eager to see what action lawmakers in Austin will take to stem rising property taxes. But I’m not holding my breath. Instead, I’m preparing my protest.