Referencing “blame and excuses,” “lacking leadership” and “continued disappointment,” Denton County commissioners voted Tuesday to disapprove of the Denton Central Appraisal District’s recent budget increase and put it in formal writing that they lack confidence in the agency.
County officials have long taken issue with DCAD’s current leadership. That came to a head in January, when commissioners sent a letter to then-chair Charles Stafford. Included were several “concerns,” chiefly a failed software conversion in 2020 that left the appraisal district scrambling to complete important functions.
The county hasn’t been the only one to take shots at DCAD’s credibility, with other taxing entities also casting doubt on its practices. Dave Lieber, The Dallas Morning News’ Watchdog columnist, has published a series of articles outlining allegations of mismanagement and illegal conduct. Many of the issues have been placed at the feet of Chief Appraiser Hope McClure, who defended herself and DCAD at a board meeting a little over a month ago.
Among all the people to join in on the snowballing criticism of DCAD, Denton County Judge Andy Eads has to slot in near the most aggressive. He was at the December board meeting where DCAD ended up tabling a proposal to change its agricultural exemption guidelines, calling the issue a “lack of transparency.”
Eads played a big role in sending over the county’s official letter of grievances in January, and in June, he was present for McClure’s defense of the agency. He called her rebuttal to an outside consultant’s review of DCAD “sloppy,” reiterating that the district “has a huge transparency problem and has a huge credibility problem.”
DCAD’s recent decision to increase its budget by almost $3 million has drawn the ire of its critics. From the district’s perspective, staffing is a key issue, and the majority of the increase will go to salaries for new employees to help handle property valuations and protests.
DCAD has maintained for a long time that the agency is woefully understaffed — and has a second opinion to back that up. Richard Petree, the outside consultant who evaluated the district and released a report in June, said 54 more employees were needed to match similar-sized districts. That would give DCAD a recommended total of 124 workers, but the agency is not adding that full amount.
Regardless of the reasons offered, an increase from a $15.23 million budget to $18 million hasn’t sat well with some. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Denton County commissioners are on that list, and came ready to fire at Tuesday morning’s Commissioners Court meeting.
Only Eads, Precinct 3 Commissioner Bobbie Mitchell and Precinct 4 Commissioner Dianne Edmondson were present for the meeting, but it was Eads who spent over five minutes reading off a statement slamming DCAD for a multitude of decisions and alleged mistakes.
Eads said DCAD is lacking in leadership and can’t be trusted, adding that its justifications for not meeting deadlines are “full of blame and excuses.”
Among the latest grievances was that DCAD once again needed to provide certified estimate tax rolls because fully certified tax rolls weren’t available in time for the 60 taxing entities, which include governmental bodies and school districts. As those entities go through their yearly budget process and set tax rates, the estimated numbers can complicate things, as county officials have dealt with in years past.
But that was only the first issue Eads referenced. He said the district failed to meet ratio studies for several school districts in the 2021 tax year, which “could ultimately reduce funding for our schools.” He said increasing the budget by over 17% shows the appraisal district is “out of touch” with the taxing entities’ needs.
Eads didn’t seem to buy low staffing as a justification for DCAD’s struggles. He cited examples such as the county jail working to house inmates elsewhere despite staffing difficulties, and schools educating children despite teacher shortages.
“We are all facing staffing challenges, and we continue to do what is needed to meet the requirement,” Eads said. “When we face challenges, we have an opportunity to provide leadership, and sadly, leadership is lacking at the Denton Central Appraisal District.”
Eads acknowledged the additional staffing may be warranted due to the county’s growth but suggested the 18 new employees won’t help the situation unless DCAD addresses lack of training among its workers.
Eads’ list of issues only continued to pile up from there: taxpayer exemptions delayed, hiring a communications liaison to “address bad publicity” and not using contingency funds earlier in this year’s cycle so the tax roll could be completed sooner.
“As a taxing entity, we must know that DCAD is working efficiently and effectively before investing any more taxpayer dollars into the Denton Central Appraisal District,” Eads said. “This vote to veto the budget is also a vote of no confidence in [DCAD]. Denton County will not fund failure.”
The commissioners then unanimously approved a formal resolution against DCAD, disapproving of the budget increase and stating the action “demonstrate[s] a lack of confidence in the Denton Central Appraisal District.”
Resolutions like this sometimes don’t bare teeth, but in this case, the county lays out a way it can make a direct impact. Commissioners cited Section 6.06(b) of the Texas Property Tax Code, which states:
“If governing bodies of a majority of the taxing units entitled to vote on the appointment of board members adopt resolutions disapproving a budget and file them with the secretary of the board within 30 days after its adoption, the budget does not take effect, and the board shall adopt a new budget within 30 days of the disapproval.”
That suggests that if 31 of DCAD’s 60 taxing entities issue similar resolutions, the 2023 budget could essentially be blocked and would need to be remade. At least one city, Denton, has a disapproval resolution on its agenda.
Emer Sanabria, spokesperson for DCAD, said Tuesday morning that no resolutions had been received from any of the 60 taxing entities.