While much of the economy is at a standstill, some government functions, like property tax collection, are not as affected.
Earlier this month, The Texan reported that due to the disaster declaration cities and counties statutorily may be exempt from the new limits instituted by Senate Bill 2, but Republican state leaders maintain the opposite.
The other aspect of this, however, is the appraisals that determine the value on which properties will be taxed. Rising appraisals are responsible for much of the annual increase in money leaving taxpayers’ wallets.
Local officials often use rising appraisals to convince taxpayers their taxes are not being increased maintaining the same rate while still bringing in a larger sum from taxpayers.
As the notices of value that are set as of January 1 of this year — before COVID-19 began wreaking havoc — begin hitting mailboxes, taxpayers have one specific mode of redress. They can protest the appraisal.
Normally, that entails filing a protest, setting a date for an appeal hearing, visiting the appraisal board in-person, and making a case. But given all that is happening this year, many county appraisal districts (CAD) have discontinued in-person hearings in favor of mail-in protests or over-the-phone equivalents.
They derive their directive to do this from the emergency orders issued by the state.
Sec 418.016. (e) of the state’s emergency management code reads, “On request of a political subdivision, the governor may waive or suspend a deadline imposed by a statute or the orders or rules of a state agency on the political subdivision, including a deadline relating to a budget or ad valorem tax, if the waiver or suspension is reasonably necessary to cope with a disaster.”
On March 13, Governor Greg Abbott issued a disaster declaration for the entire state. It reads, in part, “To the extent that the enforcement of any state statute or administrative rule regarding contracting or procurement would impede any state agency’s emergency response that is necessary to cope with this declared disaster, I hereby suspend such statutes and rules for the duration of this declared disaster for that limited purpose.”
One example of an appraisal review board adjusting its procedures is Kaufman County which says on its website, “For the foreseeable future we will not be scheduling in-person review board hearings or informal reviews. Hearings will be by telephone or by affidavit.”
The Texan spoke last month with Sarah Curtis, chief appraiser for Kaufman County, who said that they are still offering in-person protests, just not at the moment.
“We will still have in-person hearings, it’s just that we can’t have them right now. We ask that if [the property owner] want[s] to have their protest and hearing decided early, that they mark affidavit or by phone. If not, we’ll have to set them aside and have their hearing later,” Curtis stated.
Curtis further added, “If the property owner’s value is not finalized,” a process she said would be delayed should the hearing also be, “then they will not be on the rolls required to pay the tax.”
Comal County’s appraisal district site says something slightly different, that public entry is limited but not prohibited.
The strict no in-person policies, however, likely conflict with statute.
A representative with the Comal County Appraisal District explicitly told The Texan they don’t believe it’s legal to close in-person meetings entirely.
Earlier in May, Attorney General Ken Paxton issued an opinion underlining this problem.
Sec. 41.66. (a) of the Texas Property Tax Code reads, in part, “The appraisal review board shall post a copy of the hearing procedures in a prominent place in the room in which the hearing is held.”
This would seem to indicate the protest hearing is to be held in a physical room in which the hearing is conducted.
Subsection (d) adds, “hearings conducted as provided by this chapter are open to the public.”
The Texas Railroad Commission was able to hold a hearing over Zoom to which the public could tune in. Rep. Mayes Middleton (R-Wallisville) requested an opinion from the attorney general, which Paxton’s letter responded to, and specifically asked about videoconference calls.
Paxton stated, “However, the common understanding of the phrase ‘in person’ is ‘involving someone’s physical presence rather than communication by phone or email.’”
He further added, “[A] court is unlikely to conclude that an appearance by videoconference satisfies a requirement that a property owner appear ‘in person’ when the property owner requests to do so.”
On that question, Paxton concluded, “The Texas Administrative Code do[es] not address conducting a hearing by videoconference and therefore do not provide appraisal review boards with authority to require protest hearings be conducted by videoconference when a property owner requests an in-person hearing.”
The code does permit a hearing via telephone, but only if the property owner consents to it.
Paxton then elaborated, “Thus, to the extent an appraisal review board limits protest procedures to some method that eliminates the right to appear in person, such action could be grounds for a lawsuit.”
The attorney general’s office declined to specify when asked by The Texan whether the state has any authority to take action themselves against appraisal districts, or if that responsibility falls solely on the individual property owner.
A representative with the Texas Comptroller’s office confirmed to The Texan that the remedying option falls solely on the taxpayer.
Since Paxton’s opinion dropped, some appraisal boards who previously closed are reopening their doors for in-person protests. A Kaufman County Appraisal District employee confirmed to The Texan they have reinitiated in-person protests and are slowly reintroducing them over the course of the next month.
The best and most thorough way to contest an appraisal is in-person, but taxpayers have multiple options available to them. Now that the attorney general’s opinion was handed down, more will continue to have in-person access should they prefer it.
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Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad watching and quoting Monty Python productions.