Other Voices

Equal, uniform property taxes under attack

Tax appraisal districts are required to determine property values that are equal and uniform.
Tax appraisal districts are required to determine property values that are equal and uniform. AP

Austin Mayor Steve Adler recently wrote a piece for the Texas Tribune (re-published in the Star-Telegram Sept. 17) giving his take on Austin’s lawsuit against its own Central Appraisal District.

The city’s suit alleges that some property has been under-appraised.

Adler and his lawsuit complain that tax code section 42.26, which requires that property taxation be “equal and uniform,” is somehow “unfair” to the government. The truth is that section 42.26 is simply a codification of the Texas Constitution’s mandate that all taxation shall be “equal and uniform.”

Indeed, similar language appears in the constitutions of each of the 50 states and derives from the United States Constitution itself.

Were such mandates not constitutionally guaranteed, taxing authorities would be free to single out individuals or classes of individuals and their property and literally tax them out of existence.

Every single court that has considered the issue, including the United States and Texas supreme courts, has held that “when market value and equality and uniformity are in tension, equality and uniformity will prevail.”

The reasons are clear. It is for the protection of the taxpayers from government tyranny in the form of excessive taxation. If that principle is perceived as “unfair” by some government, then that government does not understand its role in our democracy.

The statute that Adler (and many appraisal districts around the state) complain of is simple in its application.

It merely provides that if your property is over-appraised when compared with a “reasonable number of similar properties, appropriately adjusted,” you are entitled to have your property value lowered to the same level as your neighbors for that year.

Since appraisal districts are required to appraise all property in each succeeding year, your “reduction” only survives into the following year(s) if the appraisal district thereafter fails to do its job (equally appraise everyone) in succeeding years after having their errors pointed out and demonstrated to them by aggrieved taxpayers.

Indeed, the system actually has the effect of adding value to the rolls, which is the opposite of what Adler suggests.

No better case in point than Austin. As Adler says, Austin “just lowered tax rates for the first time in 25 years.”

What he doesn’t tell you is why. It is because that, after numerous successful challenges to property appraisals by taxpayers on an “equal and uniform” basis in recent years, Austin’s Travis Central Appraisal District raised the values of most major commercial properties in Austin by some 22 percent!

As everyone knows, increasing appraisals increases taxes without the politicians having to raise the tax rate. Is that why Adler thinks the system is “unfair” to the city of Austin and its politicians (including Adler) who set tax rates?

The bottom line is this: Appraisal districts and taxing units don’t like this law because it subjects appraisals to scrutiny on the basis of whether they are “fair and equal” as the constitution requires.

The law simply forces appraisal districts to do their jobs and places incentives upon the appraisal districts’ mandated duties to do fair and equal appraisals.

If the appraisal districts don’t do their jobs, the law allows the aggrieved taxpayer to obtain relief, most often without even having to hire lawyers. Adler and his lawsuit want to take this right away.

I’m always leery when the government complains that some law isn’t treating it fairly.

Who makes the law? Not me. Not you. The government does. The law, in its application, should protect people from the government, not the government from the people.

Robert John Myers is a property tax lawyer in Fort Worth who has been representing the interests and rights of taxpayers throughout Texas for more than 30 years.