Tea Time

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Posted March 22, 2006 by NATHAN VAIL in News

A couple of hundred years ago, a bunch of colonists – including some of my ancestors – fought a revolution to win freedom from, among other things, taxation without representation. It may be getting close to that time again in Fort Worth – time for a class action suit, if not a tea party.

The stand-in for King George here is the Tarrant Appraisal District – which, actually, doesn’t set tax rates. It just determines the valuation placed on property, which is then multiplied by whatever tax rate is decided on by local school districts, city councils, hospital or college or crime or water districts, or the county. So TAD’s half of the equation is just as important as the politicians’ half, in deciding how big your tax bill is going to be.

Now when TAD sets the valuation on your home, you have the right to appeal that appraisal. And if the combination of higher appraisals and tax rates swell the tax rolls beyond a certain point (based on different formulas for different jurisdictions), then voters have the right to petition for a rollback of taxes – and that’s a threshold that city councils and school boards and other political bodies pay close attention to. Because the other option voters have is to toss the people out of office who voted for the tax hikes. So far, so good.

But there’s another part of the tax equation that few people know about – and that few people are in a position to do anything about. It’s called the classification system, and it works something like this:

On residential property in Tarrant County, for instance, homes fall into one classification if they are of wood-frame construction; another if they have at least 50 percent brick, stone, or stucco veneer; and a third classification if they are 100 percent brick or similar veneer. Extremely large houses of whatever construction fall into a fourth category. Never heard of this and wonder what category you’re in? Get on the internet, find the TAD web site at www.tad.org, then enter your address in the “property data search.” When the page for your property comes up, the classification is listed at the lower right.

As you might suspect, homes whose façades are of brick or stone rate higher on the taxman’s scale than wood or shingle-covered houses. But how do you tell for sure if your home is classified correctly? Answer: The appraisal district, in its infinite bureaucratic wisdom, doesn’t publish the definitions of each class. You have to call or visit to get that information.

So you get it and decide your property is wrongly classified. How do you go about redressing that grievance? Answer: You don’t. At least not by any action short of a lawsuit. TAD and other appraisal districts in Texas say that classifications are not appealable. What’s more, when I asked one TAD appraiser about a particular property’s classification, he said, “Classification is none of the public’s business.”

I talked to TAD director John Marshall about property classifications. He acknowledged that I had the basic facts right about classifications and their effect on our tax bills. But he said TAD wasn’t going to adjust one property owner’s classification because it would cause a “ripple effect.” A ripple of righteous anger perhaps? A ripple of tax justice? A ripple in the water of Boston harbor?

I recently established the Taxpayers Association of Texas, which is in the process of developing a comprehensive and comparative analysis of the classification systems used by appraisal districts in this state. The analysis should be ready at www.ctsite.com/TaxpayersAssoc, our web site, by early April.

Appraisal districts in Texas were originally established to remove the taint of politics from the process of deciding property valuations. But there is a point when politics – that is, the will and control of voters – needs to play a part. The TAD classification system is undeniably unfair. It denies due process to taxpayers, and the people who operate it are not elected.

The board members of the Taxpayers Association of Texas want to enable taxpayers to pool their resources for a single court case on this issue. An attorney has been identified, and he considers this a worthy pursuit.

If you want to join the T-party (for taxes), get in touch.

Nathan Vail is a retired soldier dedicated to justice for taxpayers.

 


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