The Watchdog credits state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, for an excellent property tax bill he introduced in Austin.
So far, it’s going nowhere.
Krause’s House Bill 1333 would fix a lot of obvious flaws in what I call the unfair and broken state property tax system.
The part I like best is his bill would remove an obvious conflict of interest.
In Texas, it’s legal to work in an appraisal district and, at the same time, serve as an elected official for a city or school district.
An appraisal district employee helps set the taxable value of a property. That same employee can then go back to her or his city council or school board and vote on setting the property tax rate for the coming year.
The property tax rate times the taxable value is what you pay.
They wear two hats. One is enough.
Krause says, “The fact that the decisions they make at the appraisal level could have a positive impact for their community — you shouldn’t have that.
“There are plenty of qualified people out there who can be in these positions and make those decisions without being personally invested in it. I think that would make the system a whole lot better.”
Appearance of a conflict
I’ve pinpointed three examples of how this plays out.
Let’s start with Rudy Durham. He’s the mayor of Lewisville. He’s also the chief appraiser for the Denton Central Appraisal District, one of the top two jobs in the district.
The other top job in the Denton district is the chairman of the board of directors that oversees the chief appraiser. Charles Stafford is chairman of the board. It’s a volunteer job.
Stafford is also vice president of the Denton school board, and so he votes to set the school property tax rate each year. At the same time, he leads the appraisal district’s board that hires Durham. The board also sets the appraisal district’s budget.
Stafford did not return my request for an interview. Durham did.
“Where’s my conflict?” the mayor asked. He explained he has no vote on the City Council unless there’s a tie.
“In almost four years as mayor, I haven’t voted at all.”
My answer is that a mayor — if not him, then someone else in a similar situation — can influence colleagues behind the scenes.
In the appraisal district, he says, “OK, the question here is how would I do it? We’re judged by the state. Every value that is put on properties here — there’s 75 people working here, not just me.
“For the most part, I don’t do individual appraisals, so that’s all I have to say on that part.”
Only he wasn’t done. “I am not hiding what I am or what I do. That’s the bottom line on it. And if they change the law in the legislature, I will give up the one that makes the least amount of money. That’s obviously the mayor. I wouldn’t violate the law. There’s where I am on that.”
Durham earns about $170,000 a year as chief appraiser. The mayor’s job pays $50 a meeting.
The hearing crasher
Another public official who wears two hats caught my eye in an unusual way. He crashed my protest hearing.
Last year, I faced three wise men on the review board and also the Tarrant Appraisal District rep on the other side of the table.
But a sixth man in the room sat in the corner observing. I asked his name, and he answered Randy Armstrong.
When my hearing ended, I watched Armstrong slip into the back offices. Who is he?
I did a web search. He’s director of residential services for TAD, and he’s also president of the White Settlement school board. Another two-hat guy. They’re all over the state.
Why was Armstrong in my protest hearing?
I don’t know. He won’t talk to me about that or about Krause’s bill that would strip him of one of his hats.
Krause’s bill offers other excellent reforms.
It would add into state law that tax protesters could cite “cosmetic defects of the property” as part of their case. Now, some counties allow that and others don’t.
His bill would require appraisal districts to send out lengthy and clearly written (for a change) notices to homeowners who are eligible for a homestead exemption on their property. That, of course, yields a sweet tax discount on a primary residence.
I always thought it cruel that the state doesn’t require this. Many a newcomer has moved here and not realized they have to apply for the exemption. It’s not automatic, and it’s not retroactive going back many years once the loss is discovered.
Rep. Krause says his goal is to “even the playing field when a taxpayer goes in for a protest hearing.”
The major property tax bill floating through the legislature would probably only leave homeowners with a typical tax decrease of only $200 a year, he says.
“[Increased] appraisals could swallow that up, and nobody’s going to see any relief,” he adds. “So if we can reform the appraisal process, I think that would go a long way.”
I commend him, and hope this bill, along with many other system reforms, passes into law.