It’s the proverbial blessing and curse of homeownership: As home values (and asset-based wealth) rise, so do the monthly property tax payments that are pegged to the estimated value of those homes. A strong economy and steady population growth have meant that median home sale prices in North Texas have increased by nearly 50% over the past five years.
Any Tarrant County resident who wishes to dispute their home value as a means of lowering their property taxes has the right to protest their bill from the Tarrant Appraisal District (TAD) through calls or in-person visits to the governmental group that sets and collects property taxes. Visits by frustrated locals have reached alarming levels, said TAD board member Rich DeOtte. Whereas TAD fielded around 70,000 protests in 2013, 153,871 property owners made a formal complaint to one of TAD’s offices in 2019. TAD oversees about 760,000 commercial and residential accounts in Tarrant County.
Between 2015 and 2019, the number of formal protests in Tarrant County rose by 170%, according to TAD data. In early 2020 and soon after beginning his first term on the board, DeOtte contacted the four largest counties outside of Tarrant and found that their protest rates increased at comparatively far lower rates: Dallas (49.7%), Bexar (27%), Travis (36%), and Harris (11%).
In June, TAD’s five board members voted to explore the possibility of undertaking an audit to find the cause of the increased protests. DeOtte, who raised the motion at the June board meeting, believes that the rising number of homeowner complaints may be due, in part, to internal errors in TAD’s accounting and home valuations.
“I do believe some of the increased protests are due to increased taxes,” he said, “but there is an awareness out there that there is something unfair in the system.”
If the TAD board moves forward with the audit, it would be the second substantial examination of irregularities within TAD in five years. In 2016, the results of an audit of software problems led then-Tarrant County Tax Assessor-Collector Ron Wright to call the findings “explosive.” Two years of software errors leading up to the audit had caused a surge of taxpayer refunds in 2016.
Without an outside investigation into the recent spike in protests, DeOtte can only speculate on some of the causes of resident frustration with their TAD bills, but the Aumentum software that caused the 2014-2016 problems may be playing some role in the ongoing spike in public complaints, DeOtte said.
On Aug. 30, State Sen. Jane Nelson, whose District 12 includes much of Tarrant County, encouraged the TAD board to solve the very problem that DeOtte has worked to address over the past year.
“As I understand it, the number of protests in Tarrant County far exceed the increases in other major metropolitan counties,” the state senator’s letter reads. “On behalf of the constituents I represent in Tarrant County, I would request that the board of directors investigate the reason for such a large increase — and to look into whether software used by the district is playing a role.”
The letter was shared with TAD’s board members six weeks after it initially arrived to a TAD representative. Given the importance of the subject matter (and the fact that it came directly from a state senator), DeOtte said the delay was an example of an inefficient bureaucratic process at TAD. He shared a couple of other examples. One concerned an RFQ or Request for Quote, which is the first step in receiving bids for projects. In November, two RFQs from TAD were closed, with only one business replying. DeOtte thought this was odd because he said he was told the RFQs were initially sent to 30 entities. One of the RFQs, he said, was 33 pages long, and DeOtte believes the size of the packet may have dissuaded some entities from completing the initial application process.
TAD board member Gary Losada said an audit or some similar process to find out why protests have skyrocketed is “absolutely necessary.” He said the frustrations voiced at TAD offices could be due to general home appreciations, software problems, or a “culture at TAD that is trying to get every penny out of taxpayers they can.”
If the audit goes forward, he added, it will unleash a “domino effect” that will force TAD to address lingering problems, and that would be a good thing.
“It’s not healthy for TAD to have these things swirling above its head,” Losada said. In these situations, it’s best to stop the swirl by “sharing the correct information and data. I’m a little confused as to why there is this resistance” to DeOtte’s ideas, he said, referring to the failed RFQ process, delayed acknowledgment of Nelson’s letter, and a general sense that the topic isn’t a priority of TAD staffers.
With little tangible progress to show, DeOtte is raising awareness of alternative options. Hiring a third-party contractor would be the fastest way to start the audit, but he understands that TAD board members may be reluctant to pay for that undertaking. Another option would be to hand the problem over to a volunteer citizen’s committee.
“We have people who are qualified in doing this kind of work,” he said. “I know people who have volunteered to help with this if we need it. If we are going to have to chase this around for three years, let’s give a committee access to information and let them come back with what they find. Some of these people are retired, and this is [the type of work] they did during their previous careers.”
Protests waste taxpayers’ time and money, DeOtte said. “There are a lot of issues [that need to be addressed] at TAD. This is the one I am focused on because I feel it affects every taxpayer in Tarrant County. Until we all get a good answer for the spike in protests, I’m not going to stop pushing.”