Property taxes are a red-hot topic this summer across Texas.
More than 20 related bills have been filed for the Legislature’s special session. Efforts to legislate tighter limits on how local property taxes can increase without a public vote have sparked heated arguments.
But a fundamental problem — the appraisal system — has been largely ignored. In fact, our state’s deeply flawed mass appraisal process is a major driver of the rapid increase in tax bills.
Fundamental Issue No. 1: The sheer volume of properties the appraisal districts must evaluate each year. For example, in Harris County there are about 5,500-plus parcels for each appraiser or analyst working for the appraisal district. That works out to about 22 parcels per day or almost three parcels per hour, year-round, for each appraiser or analyst working a five-day week. That is an impossible volume of work.
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Is it any wonder that many appraisals wind up being wildly inaccurate?
Fundamental Issue No. 2: The appraisal system unfairly burdens the property owner with the cost of proving his or her case even when the appraisal district’s assessed value is incomplete or inaccurate. And inaccurate appraisals are a direct result of Issue No. 1, because appraisal districts lump properties into categories, ratios and valuations that don’t always make sense for a specific property.
So, if you don’t like the valuation assigned to your property, you can protest it or even sue your appraisal district.
Essentially, you fund the appraisal district’s budget through your taxes and pay again to prove it when they overvalue your property. Seems like a stacked deck, doesn’t it?
Businesses and property managers are usually the only taxpayers who can afford the costs of arguing their valuation. This creates a perfect opening for the common talking point that homeowners are forced to carry the burden when businesses fight their appraisals. But it’s the flawed process that forces businesses to fight for fairness and accuracy in the first place.
No property owner wants to go down the path of litigation. But litigation often resolves disputes quickly because it allows more time to evaluate the property and its specifics. The extremely rushed appraisal and protest process is simply too compressed to be of much use.
Fairness in the system would improve — and litigation would be reduced — with real transparency in the appraisal review boards and processes. It’s time to hold appraisal boards accountable by making those positions elected, not appointed.
In addition, before we talk about rates, fixes, caps or anything else, we need to strengthen the requirements for serving on an appraisal review board. The boards are typically composed of retired Texans with little or no experience in real estate, cap rates, expense ratios and national debt/lending trends. That needs to change.
Until reform happens, commercial and personal property owners in Texas need to use all the tools now available. Filing a protest is one tool. But the process is inherently tilted in the appraisal district’s favor because of its far-too-cozy relationship with the review board.
When a protest doesn’t produce a fair and accurate number, the final option is to take the appraisal district to court. That’s a sure way to expose the deep flaws in the appraisal system and to put the appraisal districts on notice that taxpayers are ready to fight back.
Rahul Patel is the managing partner of Patel Gaines, a Texas-based law firm specializing in property tax issues. He is also an adjunct professor of law at the University of Houston and a frequent speaker on real estate issues.