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Jim Popp

Compromise property tax appraisal bill signed

It’s better than nothing, though not by that much.

Gov. Greg Abbott has signed a bill that partially closes a loophole that allowed a powerful oil company to take back millions in tax dollars from Houston-area school districts while draining hundreds of millions more from local government coffers.

The measure that won final approval, HB 2083, from the Republican-controlled Legislature doesn’t go nearly as far in reforming the law as the Legislative Budget Board wanted. The board noted earlier this year that the law is costing the state $70 million to $80 million a year because Texas has to help maintain a certain level of funding at school districts, which are having to repay companies winning court cases based on a 1997 amendment to the state’s tax law.

When the measure takes effect in January next year, though, companies for the first time will be forced to use generally accepted appraisal methods in court cases challenging assessed values under the 18-year-old “equal and uniform” clause of the tax law.

The bill was pushed by county appraisal districts, who complained that often questionable methods were being used during tax appeals to arrive at appraisal values, said Charles Gilliland, a research economist at Texas A&M’s Real Estate Center at College Station.

“I think it will have some effect on it. How much … depends on how much unconscionable activity has been going on,” Gilliland said.

The new standard could give an advantage to appraisal districts, he said. “If they see the numbers being cooked, it gives them ammunition to raise that issue without going to district court,” Gilliland said.

The tax code section at issue gained attention after the Valero oil company forced the Port Arthur school district to refund about $30 million in taxes and other fees, and the Texas City school district about $5 million.

“I think the law was so bad that anything they could do was an improvement,” said Harris County chief appraiser Sands Stiefer, whose county school districts lost $685 million from 2011 to 2014 because of the loophole.

Stiefer, who took part in negotiations over the bill, said the measure leaves much to be desired. He said the issue will be revisited next legislative session. “We would like to see more done,” he said.

See here for the background, and here for a reminder of just how badly the current system is rigged. This bill will help a little, and that’s a good thing. Real Value$ for Texas calls it a “step forward”. I would agree with that and I appreciate the hard work they did to get that step forward taken. My concern is that now that we have taken this step, the perception in Austin will be that the problem is solved, and there will be no appetite to do anything further. I hope I’m wrong and that this is indeed just a first step. Be that as it may, I’m glad to see us get this far. It will make things a little fairer, and that’s never bad news.

Compromise bill to reform property tax appraisals

Better than nothing, I guess, but not clear to me yet how much better.

State lawmakers are looking to partly close a tax loophole that has allowed big companies to drain tens of millions of dollars from local government coffers in recent years, but any reforms that pass may still not end the legal battles that have been driving down appraisals on industrial and commercial properties.

Several reform bills were filed this year as counties began putting pressure on legislators to do something about an increasing number of lawsuits by major companies trying to take advantage of the loophole, which allows property owners to avoid the traditional fair-market system of appraisals.

School districts have been among those hardest hit. Valero Energy Corp. used the loophole to force the Texas City school district to refund about $5 million, while two other lawsuits by the company compelled the Port Arthur school district to pay $32 million in refunds and other charges. The company has new lawsuits pending that could mean even more tax refunds from the two school districts.

The loophole is also costing the state an estimated $70 million to $80 million a year in six counties, according to a January report by the nonpartisan Legislative Budget Board that called for sweeping reforms. The state must pay its share of tax revenue lost by school districts.

Although several reform measures have been introduced, the one that appears to have the broadest support in the GOP-controlled legislature is a measure introduced jointly by state Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, and state Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-Richland Hills, a Fort Worth suburb.

The compromise bill would require that property values used in court cases be arrived at using generally accepted appraisal methods instead of arbitrary estimates arrived at, in the words of the budget board, “independently of the market values of those properties or the appraisal district in which they are located.”

The measure also addresses the board’s concern that the law now allows commercial and industrial property owners challenging their tax assessments to compare their properties with dissimilar ones in other appraisal districts, or even other states. The bill requires that the comparisons be made within the same county unless there are no comparable properties there.

Alvin Lankford, Williamson County’s chief appraiser, said owners of large apartment buildings in his county typically search for such properties in neighboring Travis County to make comparisons rather than use apartment buildings on the same street. “They are able to pick these properties and get the answer they want,” he said.

Many appraisers, citizens’ groups and officials in affected counties wanted a bill that included more of the reforms recommended by the budget board. However, some of the attorneys, consultants, real estate firms and big businesses that benefit tremendously from the loophole refused to negotiate, said Ed Nolan, Dallas County’s chief appraiser and the chairman of the Texas Association of Appraisal Districts’ legislative committee.

“We didn’t get as much as we wanted,” Nolan said. “But it’s a start.”

[…]

In Houston, property owners concerned about having to shoulder higher property taxes because of tax reductions on industrial and commercial property formed Real Value$ for Texas, which has chapters statewide. The group found that from 2009 to 2013, owners of large commercial properties in Texas’ six largest counties shed $5.6 billion in property taxes that were made up for through higher taxes paid by homeowners.

“It’s unfair, it’s bad public policy and it needs to be changed,” said state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, in announcing his own reform bill this month. He said large commercial property owners are using the loophole to “exploit the appeals process to drive down the appraised values of their properties to well below the market value.”

Ellis’ bill was the most ambitious of six reform bills, four by Democrats and two by Republicans. The compromise bill that emerged calls for the most modest changes. It also has the imprimatur of state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.

I support Sen. Ellis’ bill, and would like to know what he and groups like Real Value$ for Texas think before I decide how I feel about these compromise bills. They may represent a step forward, but they may also represent a point at which the forces who like things the way they are can say “we’ve already addressed this” and block further progress. The fact that Jim Popp, who may be the single biggest individual profiteer off the current system, appears to have signed off on the Darby/Hancock bills is the surest sign that there’s a lot more that could be done. I don’t think he’s complaining enough for these bills to do enough, but this may be the best we can do for now.

How the appraisal game is rigged

The Observer tells the tale of how we got to where we are with the appraisal process and how easy it is for the big boys to get their taxes drastically reduced.

BagOfMoney

At the heart of Valero’s lawsuits in Moore County was a complicated question: What is a refinery worth? For that matter, what is any property worth?

Since most litigation against appraisal districts settles out of court, juries rarely get to answer that question. But that’s what a Galveston jury did in 2013 when it lowered the tax value of Valero’s Texas City refinery from $527 million to $337 million, though Valero had agreed to the higher number only two years before. A local jury, in a town far from rich, sided with the world’s largest independent refiner in its perennial quest to drastically cut the taxes it owes to public schools and local governments.

Appraisal district officials across Texas were flabbergasted. Refineries are a complicated, opaque business, and the technical testimony took a whole mind-numbing week—“a battle of experts,” said Ken Wright, the chief appraiser for the Galveston Central Appraisal District. Yet members of the jury took only four hours to decide in Valero’s favor. It proved what every trial lawyer knows, that the battle is almost always won by the side that not only tells its story best, but has the simplest story to tell. “It’s taken me many years to figure this out,” said a rueful Wright, who is retiring this year.

The story, Valero’s whole case, depended on a one-sentence amendment to the property tax code that whisked through the Legislature in 1997. The details of how that happened are hazy—the legislator who introduced the amendment died years ago—but the man who wrote it is a respected Austin tax attorney, Jim Popp. His firm, Popp Hutcheson, has represented some of the most prominent plaintiffs in lawsuits against appraisal districts, among them Western Refining, the JW Marriott hotels, H-E-B, Walgreens, the Formula 1 racetrack in Austin and Valero.

There are basically two ways to challenge a tax appraisal—on value and on unequal appraisal. The first claims that a property has been appraised above market value. The second claims that while a property may be appraised at market value, others like it are appraised for much less. Before 1997, an unequal appraisal claim required an expensive property analysis called a ratio study, and it was seldom used.

Popp’s amendment created an easier, cheaper way to claim unequal appraisal and gain an automatic reduction in value—so easy that it is now routinely used in tax protests and dominates big-ticket litigation. You simply select a “reasonable” number of “comparable” properties (available on the appraisal district’s website), adjust their values up or down (your house has a swimming pool, mine doesn’t) and find the median—the middle number on the list. What’s reasonable or comparable isn’t spelled out. Market value is beside the point. If your valuation is higher than the median, it gets lowered to that number. The amendment is now called the equity statute, or simply “equal and uniform,” echoing the Texas Constitution’s dictum that taxation be “equal and uniform.”

David Hugin, a Popp Hutcheson lawyer, argued the case in Galveston. Fairness was the theme: The appraisal district had wronged Valero by overvaluing its refinery, and the law showed the jury exactly how to set things right. It produced a breathtakingly simple answer to the vexing question of worth.

All the jury had to do was look at the comparables, the other two refineries in Galveston County—Marathon’s little 84,000-barrel-per-day plant, which processes only light sweet crude oil, and BP’s 451,000-barrel-per-day behemoth (now also owned by Marathon), which runs all kinds of crude oil, sprawls over 1,200 acres and is one of the largest, most complex refineries in the U.S. It had been appraised for $800 million more than the smaller refinery. “They are massively different,” said Wright. “Like comparing a corner grocery to a Kroger’s.”

Read the whole thing. If your blood isn’t boiling by the end of it at the ease with which the lucky few can screw the rest of us, you’re probably one of the lucky ones making a killing off of this. The Legislature could of course fix this, but we all know what the odds of that are. In the meantime, cities, counties, school districts, hospital districts, and ordinary homeowners are all getting squeezed.