The state property tax system is unfair, confusing and rotten to the core.
The Watchdog collected stories from the 2021 tax season that prove my point. Unfortunately, these stories are not rarities. This is like a Ripley’s Believe it or Not! exhibition about hurt taxpayers.
Let’s begin with news coming out of troubled Denton Central Appraisal District, where civil war has broken out.
Beverly Henley, the outgoing chairperson of the Denton County Appraisal Review Board, which handles home value protests, has filed a complaint with the state against Denton County Chief Appraiser Hope McClure.
In her letter to state regulators, Henley, who is resigning on Jan. 1, dished the dirt. She accused McClure of “suspected fraud” hurting both governments and taxpayers.
Her chief accusation is that McClure couldn’t meet deadlines to finish property reviews, so McClure sent out erroneous value notices to hundreds — and some say thousands — of property owners. The notices showed an automatic 10% reduction. Some of these owners then happily withdrew their protests.
But later, these owners received a second corrected notice, often far less than the10% reduction in the first notice. With their values, and thus taxes, suddenly higher, owners were irate and confused.
McClure declined to comment on this, telling me, “The Denton Central Appraisal District is completely separate from the Denton County ARB. I cannot respond to the opinions or decisions made by Denton Appraisal Review Board or its members.”
If you miss your protest hearing at the Collin Appraisal Review Board, you can file a “good cause request” for a second chance.
The application form for this is one of the most intrusive I have ever seen. It’s designed to catch liars.
“If you were out of town … when did you leave? Return? Where were you? Why were you there? Did you have access to a phone? … Do you have copies of airline tickets?
“If you or a family member was ill … who was it? When did the illness occur?
“If a member of your immediate family died, who died? What relationship to you? When did he/she die? When and where were the funeral services? Do you have an obituary?”
If you think I’m making this up, I’m not. That’s word for word.
A Dallas County taxpayer sent me a screenshot of his phone that showed he was on hold with the Dallas Central Appraisal District for 3 hours and 18 minutes waiting for his protest hearing via telephone.
He showed up on time. The hearing folks did not.
Dallas CAD spokesperson Cheryl Jordan said, “There typically are not hold times for telephone hearings because property owners call in and we either queue them to their hearing or we call them back.”
A typical wait is 15 to 30 minutes, she said. Tell him that.
Some sharp-eyed taxpayers have noticed that a key number is no longer given to property owners.
That number is the estimated tax bill that comes on the initial value notice. That number helped people decide whether to protest their property values.
That number is gone, thanks to a new law that appraisal districts don’t have to provide an estimate anymore.
Appraisal districts pushed state lawmakers to allow them to stop providing an initial estimated tax number, saying the numbers were never accurate in the end. Plus, a new system in which taxpayers in larger counties are asked to visit websites to get their tax numbers supposedly suffices.
The problem is those numbers don’t come in until later, so it’s very possible people who could protest don’t have the information in time to know what to do.
Also, how many people visit the new websites? Every time I visited, the number shown was zero. Updates are slow. We miss the estimated tax number.
This happened in Rockwall, but it could happen in any county. A man and his neighbor both had protest hearings on the same day at the same time. Both had the same strategy: Each had a next-door neighbor whose property was very similar, and the next-door neighbor’s value was lower than the two protesters.
They requested that their values drop to match the next-door neighbors’ value. That usually works in a protest.
This time, though, it only worked for one of them. The loser was so upset he couldn’t sleep. His note to me arrived at 2 a.m.
“I am dumbfounded of how this ‘fair’ system works,” he said.
Welcome to the club, sir.
A Grapevine woman didn’t know her homestead exemption was mistakenly dropped by the Tarrant Appraisal District, which then sent her a bill for five years of back taxes, which she paid.
The exemption never should have been dropped. Still, her fight to correct this outrage lasted two years.
In the end, about $10,000 was refunded to the woman. In exchange, chief appraiser Jeff Law asked her property tax agent to withdraw two open record requests to the appraisal district.
In a note to me, Law did not admit his office’s clerical error in dropping her exemption.
“The only error that I am aware of was the stopping of the exemption of the previous owner,” he said.
Everybody file a protest
I will stick with my long-term recommendation that everybody file a protest. (Do you remember my movement has its own flag?)
Of course, there are exceptions. But even seniors who can freeze much of their property tax at age 65 may want to protest to keep values down.
As I’ve learned, in this unpredictable system, the secret to keeping your property tax low is to be consistent in protesting the market value.
Taking action to protest each spring can and often usually does have an impact on where you start with next year’s value. Lowering this year means a lower hurdle the following year, and on and on.
That’s what I think. Believe it or not!
DAVE LIEBER, The Dallas Morning News’ The Watchdog investigative columnist, is the author of the new biography “Searching for Perot: My Journey to Discover Texas’ Top Family.” Visit www.perotbook.com.