Texans will face another election after approving property tax cuts

The Mueller neighborhood in East Austin on Oct. 7, 2023. (John Jordan/The Texas Tribune, John Jordan/The Texas Tribune)

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LUFKIN – In a state known for too many elections, there’s another one coming to Texas’ 50 largest counties.

This May, voters in those most populous counties will be asked to elect three members of their respective appraisal district boards. When Texas voters approved constitutional amendments to lower property taxes this year they also approved new political positions within their appraisal districts that are now up for election in May.

Appraisal districts determine annual property valuations based on market value, which helps local taxing entities calculate how much tax revenue they can receive in a given year, and set their tax rates and budgets. Since 1980, these districts have included a property tax appraiser and an appointed board.

Last November, voters approved the ballot measure that set a temporary maximum on appraised property values and increased the homestead exemption from $40,000 to $100,000. But they may not have read further. Included in the ballot language was a major tweak to how appraisal district board members – usually appointed by local elected officials – are chosen.

Beginning in May, there will be four-year terms for members of the boards for appraisal districts with populations over 75,000 and each will have eight members. Three of those will be elected. The change has drawn some concern and criticism from county leaders now saddled with a brand new election. And many counties are still working out which current members will serve as an appointed official and which will be forced to run for an elected spot.

So why do this? According to state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Houston Republican and the author of Senate Bill 2 that became Proposition 4 on the November ballot, Texas lawmakers were overrun with questions regarding taxpayer input into the county appraisal district governance.

“Now when you look historically over this, there’s never really been elected representation ever on the appraisal district board of directors,” he said.

Whether a board is elected or appointed, board members don’t make decisions regarding property values, which is the issue voters primarily complain about according to Bettencourt. The board does decide what members are appointed to the appraisal review board, which is not required to lower property values but has the option to.

The senator also said in the current system, “a lot of these people (board of director members) are elected officials. They just happen to be a commissioner, a city council member, a school trustee.”

The proposition now not only adds another election to Texas’ notoriously high roster, but also prevents current board members from seeking election if they are already elected officials, as Texas state law only permits citizens to serve in one elected position at a time, according to the Texas Municipal League.

“It is important to be aware of these issues because the acceptance of a second public office can result in an automatic resignation from a person’s current public office,” wrote Zindia Thomas, the league’s assistant general counsel, in the organization’s explainer to its members.

For the 15 taxing jurisdictions in Angelina County, a Deep East Texas county with a population of 86,506, the restructuring will cut appointed officials from nine to five representatives to make room for three to-be-elected members. The board had not decided which appointed representatives will remain and who will have to run for elected office, said Guessippina Bonner, who is both a Lufkin city council member and an Angelina County appraisal board member.

The decision not to hold elections for all eight positions was to provide “balance,” a combination of appointed and elected officials, said Bettencourt, Harris County’s former tax-assessor-collector. This balance is a compromise between property owners and the taxing entities who have decided who runs the board until now.

Additionally, the new law will require Texas appraisal districts to foot the bill for the election. Bonner estimated Angelina County’s appraisal district could spend between $50,000 and $180,000 on the elections, depending on whether they can add the new positions to ballots being drafted by municipalities.

Appraisal districts and their boards were created by the passage of Senate Bill 621 in 1979 to streamline what was then a chaotic property tax process. At the time, every taxing jurisdiction posted different valuations of the same property. Appraisal districts are now led by a chief appraiser, hired by appointed board members, who also create and approve the office’s budget. These appointed board members are unpaid volunteers.

Appraisal district boards also appoints a separate appraisal review board, which hears property valuation challenges filed by taxpayers. The board of directors has nothing to do with property valuations or how they are made. The review board, however, can decide whether a property owner’s protest about a valuation is valid and change it.

Bettencourt, whose own company, Bettencourt Tax Advisors LLC, offers property valuation protest services, said his push to change the makeup of these boards has nothing to do with his business but is in response to taxpayers’ concerns brought to him and other lawmakers.

He added that appraisal review boards have drawn endless scrutiny especially as property values rose dramatically in the last three years with changes to the housing market.

He believes this change offers taxpayers more say in their government.

“The question is, ‘How do you do something to restart a process that the public thinks they have some input into and that people will listen to?’” he said.

But the change has drawn concern from some chief appraisers, who worry this will either politicize the system or create problems convincing anyone to fill the seat.

“Who wants to get signage and go knock on doors for a position that does not pay a dime?” asked Angelina County Chief Appraiser Tim Chambers. “You get no benefit whatsoever for being on my board – a cup of coffee or a bottle of water is about all you get.”

In Bexar County, Chief Appraiser Rogelio Sandoval is waiting to see what this will mean for his community. He didn’t express an opinion on the change, but said it is his job to uphold the law regardless of what it is – which is what he plans to do.

There’s also the added scrutiny board members typically face, as residents protesting their property evaluations have historically evaluated properties owned by board members as well, he said.

Chambers wanted to know exactly what the board of directors was expected to campaign on, what kind of promises they could make. Board members are not permitted to discuss property valuations outside of public meetings and cannot tell the chief appraiser to change property values.

Ultimately the decision to elect board members came as lawmakers determined electing appraisal review board members would be too complicated and realizing there weren’t many promises a chief appraiser could make, Bettencourt said.

“The problem is, what does [a chief appraiser candidate] run on?” Bettencourt asked. “Do they run on raising values, getting fair market values? Or do they run on keeping values the same? Or lowering them?”

Whether the system will actually work will have to be seen in coming years, the senator said. There is no formal review process to determine whether this actually restores property owner confidence in the appraisal system.

Why were the new elected offices not spelled out in the ballot language?

The chief appraisers in both Angelina, and Bowie counties criticized how the appraisal district board elections were slipped into the proposition with little to no explanation.

“It's kind of like, look, we're trying to do something for you, but we're really not,” Mike Brower, the chief appraiser for Bowie County, said.

Indeed, the language of last year’s proposition only suggests the appraisal district board would have terms of four years, and does not indicate whether any positions would be elected. Likewise, the explanation provided by the secretary of state’s office for the proposition never mentioned an election either. Statewide, there was little news coverage of the matter.

Bettencourt said he wanted the constitutional ballot language in November to be clearer but said it was “a lot better” than the language used in the May 2022 election. He blamed the vagueness of the language in this property tax amendment on the Legislative Council, the nonpartisan agency that assists lawmakers with the drafting and analysis of proposed legislation.

“It's a constant state of feedback from me on all these constitutional amendments because I always want to make them clearer, better, easier to read for the public,” he said.

Sandoval, the Bexar County chief appraiser, said he was aware of the possible change to elected board members for several years so he didn’t find the switch this year, surprising

Why insert politics into a previously apolitical space?

Chambers and Brower worry creating elected positions will politicize a formerly apolitical system. Brower doesn’t understand why the positions need to be elected.

“Essentially, the board can hire and fire the chief appraiser and find us a place to office. They can enter into contracts over $5,000, they approve a budget and they appoint (the appraisal review board),” Brower said. “I just told you everything my board of directors is allowed by law to do and not a thing that I just told you has anything to do with property value and it has nothing to do with taxes.”

Campaigners seeking board positions cannot promise to lower property values, or to make truly substantive changes to how the system operates during the election.

Furthermore, Bonner, the Angelina County appraisal board member, worries the change will remove people of color from these boards, particularly in smaller counties.

On a federal and state level, people of color are appointed to positions of power at a rate representative of the local population. But in at-large positions, such as city mayors, people of color only hold a fraction of leadership positions.

Starting this year, appraisal district boards across the state will have to decide what positions are appointed, and who will have to run for office.

“Who's to say I would be one of the appointed people?” Bonner, who is black, asked. “In May, I might have to run countywide.”

Bettencourt rejected the notion this election would politicize the board or disrupt representation for people of color.

“Just totally reject that concept,” he said. “That's that's that's utterly false on its face.”

He pointed to the city of Houston where the Latino representation on city council increased from one person to three and a black Republican was also elected. He believes those elected to office will be representative of their communities.

And he said the Legislature agreed to hold the elections in May alongside municipal elections because candidates do not have to file with a specific party to run. This keeps partisan politics out of the race, he said.

How is this new election going to work?

Chambers said counties were given little guidance on how to move forward with the new election before the first public notice deadline approached. Counties were expected to run notices of the election in their local newspapers to comply with state law on Monday, Dec. 18. Texas Secretary of State Jane Nelson’s office released an elections advisory on Dec. 14 – the Thursday before the expected publication.

Exactly how much the elections will cost counties is not immediately clear. The fiscal note, accompanying Bettencourt’s original bill said only “that the change“ could result in costs to the counties associated with administering those elections.”

Lawmakers considered cost while writing the bill, and the determination was that May elections are cheaper than November elections because fewer people vote in those elections, he said.

Bexar County’s appraisal district will pay for the election, Sandoval said.

“This is an unfunded mandate. So just moving forward, the annual cost increases to our budget, that would be my concern right now,” he said. “But of course we'll plan accordingly.”

There is some state funding available to communities, Bettencourt said, to offset the cost of voter registration. Ultimately, however, he said the cost will be the appraisal district’s to bear.

The Angelina County Appraisal District receives around $500,000 from the county annually for general operations.

When Bonner asked how much the elections would cost, she was given an estimate from $50,000 to $180,000 – a figure entirely dependent on whether the entity could “piggyback” off of other elections.

County judges will begin accepting applications for these board positions Jan. 17 and the deadline is Feb. 16. Candidates in counties with populations smaller than 200,000 residents will owe a $200 filing fee, in counties with larger populations that fee is $400.

Disclosure: Texas Association of Appraisal Districts, Texas Municipal League and Texas Secretary of State have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Correction, : A previous version of this story included incorrect information provided by Bexar County about who would cover the cost of an appraisal district board election. The appraisal district will pay for the election.

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