Texans get their first crack at electing the people overseeing the state’s complicated property appraisal process

Texans in more populous counties are electing appraisal district board members for the first time. Appraisal districts determine property values, a figure that helps determine tax bills. (Photo Illustration By Callaghan O'Hare, Photo Illustration By Callaghan O'Hare)

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Texas homeowners have long had a springtime ritual: checking the latest appraised value of their property with dread, assuming that the new value alone will drive up their tax bill.

Now, voters will have more direct say in who runs the obscure agencies that oversee the property appraisal process that plays a major role in individual property taxes and the revenues local governments collect to fund operations and public services.

For the first time Saturday, voters in some of the state’s largest counties will elect some of the board members for local appraisal districts, whose employees ultimately determine how much property is worth for tax purposes. Until now, those boards have been made up of the county tax assessor-collector, who is also elected, and members appointed by local taxing districts like cities, counties and school districts. The new state law requires appraisal district boards to have nine members. The tax assessor-collector will hold one seat, appointed members will hold five and those elected by voters will hold three. Elected members will serve four-year terms.

Appraisal district boards don’t determine property values, but they select the people who do. The boards appoint chief appraisers, who oversee the appraisal process. Board members can’t tell chief appraisers to tweak property values. Boards also appoint members to appraisal review boards that decide whether to lower appraised values when property owners contest their value. And the board sets the district’s budget and approves contracts.

The new law requires only counties with more than 75,000 residents to hold the elections, a designation that applies to 50 of the state’s 254 counties. In 30 of those counties, appraisal board candidates either didn’t draw challengers or the elections were canceled because no one filed for the positions. In instances where no one filed for an elected spot, the remaining board members can appoint people to those seats.

The new elections are part of a broader effort to rein in the state’s relatively high property taxes that fund everything from police officers and librarians to public school textbooks and teacher salaries in a state that doesn’t collect income taxes. When voters approved $12.7 billion in new property tax cuts last year, they also approved the new elections for many appraisal district boards.

Texas lawmakers crafted the measure amid pressure from property owners complaining of skyrocketing appraisals during the state’s hot housing market and strong economic growth. Those appraised values are only one part of the equation determining a homeowners’ property tax bill. Local governments like cities, counties and school districts set tax rates that determine how much will be collected from property owners.

“There is a fundamental misunderstanding of how the system works,” said Brent South, chief appraiser at the Hunt County Appraisal District. “I think a lot of property owners don't understand that there's a difference between the appraisal district and the taxing units.”

A recent Texas Tribune analysis of more than 50 homeowners’ tax bills found that they paid less in 2023 than in 2018. That’s largely because the state increased the homestead exemption — or the amount of assessed property value that isn’t taxed — for school district taxes. But measures intended to drive down tax rates local governments set have also played a role in keeping tax bills from rising too quickly, even as property values grew.

The new elections are seen as a way to give taxpayers a better seat at the table, even though they already elect the members of city councils, county commissioners courts and school boards that set tax rates.

“Yes, the tax rate is going down, and that's a good thing,” said state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Houston Republican who authored the measure. “You also have to have a fair valuation.”

Still, some critics worry that elected board members will insert havoc and political jockeying into the property appraisal process. Before the Texas Legislature created appraisal districts in the late 1970s, the task of assessing property owners’ values fell to individual taxing entities like cities, counties and school districts — which often came up with different values for the same property. Appraisal districts came about as a way to smooth out that process and create one set of values.

The state also created appraisal districts in order to “remove political pressure from the appraisal process,” South said.

“Having elected board members might interject political pressure right back into it,” said South, who chairs the Texas Association of Appraisal District’s legislative committee.

Voter turnout in Texas’ local elections tends to be anemic. Political experts expect the appraisal district races also to be low-turnout affairs: Candidates are running for an obscure board, and it’s the first time they’re doing so.

“It just all adds up to this very lackluster interest into what could make a difference, particularly in these large metropolitan counties that have seen their property values just skyrocket over the last decade,” said Renée Cross, senior executive director of the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston.

Though the seats are nonpartisan, candidates have campaigned with partisan identifiers, drawn endorsements from prominent officials and deployed campaign rhetoric that hues along traditional partisan lines.

Conservative-leaning candidates in particular have campaigned as “taxpayer advocates” seeking to rein in what they see as excesses among appraisal districts.

“Tarrant Appraisal District has been hostile to the very taxpayers they were commissioned to serve,” Eric Morris, a Haltom City Council member running for a seat on Tarrant Appraisal District’s board, wrote on his campaign website. “It’s time to end that and balance the scales between the government and the people footing the bill!”

Liberal-leaning and progressive candidates have positioned themselves as bulwarks against would-be tax-cut warriors who they fear would unduly interfere with the appraisal process and starve school districts and municipalities of much-needed tax revenue.

Kendall Scudder, a Texas Democratic Party finance chair seeking a seat on the Dallas Central Appraisal District’s board, notes on his campaign website that the assessment entity is “vitally important” to ensuring local governments function and that it’s his priority to “ensure fair, equitable, and uniform appraisals, to ensure that citizens protesting their appraisals feel that they are treated fairly.”

Two of the newly elected board members must sign off on the appointees to appraisal review boards, which could let elected members stack review boards with people who promise to cut property owners’ values, said Dick Lavine, a tax policy expert at the left-leaning think tank Every Texan. Lavine is running for the Travis Central Appraisal District board.

South, the Hunt County chief appraiser, also worries elected members could exercise their veto power and bring the appointment process to a halt, he said.

A likely outcome of either scenario: the chief appraiser would be forced to accept lower values, at a potential cost to localities and school districts.

“Making it more direct like this is just an invitation for political meddling,” said Lavine, who previously chaired the Travis appraisal board.

Others are skeptical of such a scenario. Matt Mackowiak, a longtime GOP operative running for a separate seat on the Travis Central Appraisal District board, noted that such a move would interfere with localities’ ability to provide services like police and fire protection. Mackowiak has previously campaigned to boost Austin’s police budget. If elected to the appraisal district board, Mackowiak said he would want to tackle how to improve the district’s customer service and make the appeals process more legible to property owners.

“I live here,” said Mackowiak, who chairs the Travis County Republican Party. “I don't want to decimate the revenue in this county.”

There’s plenty of acknowledgement, too, that electing members to the appraisal district board is somewhat of an experiment — and members who haven’t served on an appraisal district board will do some amount of learning on the job. If newcomers unduly create disruption in the appraisal process, state lawmakers can make tweaks, said Bettencourt, the law’s author.

“This is designed for adults to work, be good board members and listen to taxpayers,” Bettencourt said. “If individual people are running to do something else, they're running for the wrong job.”

Disclosure: Every Texan and University of Houston 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.

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