The people who handle Tarrant County homeowners’ protests of their property appraisals work hard to follow the letter and the spirit of the law.
But the spirit of customer service? Next window, please.
The recent treatment of homeowners who contend they did not receive notice of their scheduled hearing to fight the increase in their property’s taxable value was, to be blunt, pretty sorry. A couple hundred people missed out, and here’s what their government told them:
We mailed your notice. We can prove it. Prove you didn’t get it. Can’t prove a negative? Too bad. Next.
Let’s acknowledge that the agency that conducts property appraisals, the Tarrant Appraisal District, and the separate body that has to deal with protests, the Appraisal Review Board, have hard jobs. And it only gets harder as the area booms and property values rise. The number of protests filed has nearly doubled in just three years, chief appraiser Jeff Law notes.
And increasingly, voters are coming to understand that local governments are talking out both sides of their mouths about taxes, crowing about keeping tax rates low while collecting — and spending — ever more revenue because appraisals skyrocket. Their anger increasingly gets directed at the appraisal district and process.
Who can blame them? Parts of the system are absurd, and the burden is entirely on homeowners to defend themselves. County, city and school district officials understandably don’t have much incentive to make it easier to protest appraisal increases.
But local officials should do more to push for changes. Here’s one idea: How about joining the modern era and providing information about scheduled hearings outside of the U.S. mail? In an era when you can track your pizza order street by street on your cell phone, surely property owners could sign up for notifications by email, text message or automated calls.
Appraisal officials point out that the 200 or so homeowners who say they didn’t get their notices are a fraction of the 204,000 protests filed. But does anyone think that error rate for the Postal Service seems unrealistic? Envelopes stick together. Carriers drop letters in the wrong box.
Until the technology is in place, how about giving the homeowner the benefit of the doubt? After all, we’ve established that we’re talking about a tiny fraction of overall appraisals. Officials might fear that would prompt a rush of late protests, but that’s unlikely.
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The Legislature needs to improve the process. As Law, the chief appraiser, notes, the Appraisal Review Board follows the state property tax code, which says proof of depositing the hearing notice in the mail is enough to establish that it was delivered.
In the meantime, homeowners must look out for themselves. Law suggests that if you’ve requested a protest hearing but haven’t gotten a scheduling notice by June 15, start calling the appraisal district.
“Time is of the essence,” he said. “It’s absolutely not a situation in which you file a protest, you’ll hear within 60 to 90 days. It should be 15 to 30 days.”
And once tax rolls are certified, changes can only be made in response to a “substantial” error in an appraisal or as a result of a costly lawsuit.
Lawmakers know that homeowners are angry about property taxes. They’ve tried to curtail increases by putting more of the burden for school funding on the state. Cities, counties and other taxing entities are a small portion of your bill.
So, the appraisal process is the natural next focus. The Legislature doesn’t come back for more than a year, though In the meantime, local officials such as Tarrant County Tax Assessor-Collector Wendy Burgess, a member of the Appraisal Review Board, should apply pressure to the district and board to give homeowners a break.
Customers, after all, are voters, too.