Leaders from five central appraisal districts share how COVID-19 drove procedural changes, some of which may be here to stay.
In early 2020, the rapidly unfolding pandemic threatened to derail Texas' property tax assessment and appeal process.
With stay-at-home orders being issued at the same time that appraisal districts were sending out initial values for 2020, uncertainty cast doubt on how the process would proceed, or even whether it would proceed at all. Taxing entities were concerned with revenue impacts, and taxpayers were concerned about their ability to pay.
Every year, Texas launches the property tax cycle every Jan. 1 with a revaluation of property. In most jurisdictions, taxpayers expect to receive notices of appraised value sometime in April, with the deadline for protesting the appraised value typically falling in May. Under normal circumstances, these dates begin the property tax protest cycle for the year.
On March 31, 2020, however, the "typical year" quickly became anything but.
Appraisal districts faced the nearly impossible task of navigating an unprecedented scenario with limited time and resources. Their success in maintaining a functioning appeals process is a testament to the professionalism of the state's chief appraisers and personnel and to the fundamental strength of Texas' property tax system.
We queried chief appraisers and commercial supervisors from several appraisal districts about their experiences from the past year and their expectations for the property tax protest process in 2021 and beyond.
Their observations provide not only a summary of their responses to the crisis, but also offer a blueprint for a successful appraisal and appeals system.
Popp Hutcheson: What were some initial challenges for you and your personnel when the stay-at-home orders were first announced?
Michael Page, Director of Appraisal, Hays Central Appraisal District: "When the stay-at-home orders hit in Hays County, we were just a few weeks away from our scheduled date to send notices. Our first challenge was to complete the notice process and simultaneously ensure the majority of our staff could work from home."
Scott Griscom, Assistant Chief Appraiser, Bexar Appraisal District: "Waiting on guidance from state officials with regard to the 2020 reappraisal effort pushed back our mailing dates for notices… The delay in mailings pushed back the protest deadline for all properties this year."
Jack Barnett, Chief Communications Officer, Harris County Appraisal District: "The Harris County Appraisal District was faced with two major challenges that resulted from the pandemic – avoiding transmitting the diseases in the building and social distancing."
Popp Hutcheson: Once it was clear the process was not returning to "normal" in 2020, what were the largest challenges in moving forward with protests?
Brent South, Chief Appraiser, Hunt County Appraisal District: "Logistical matters were the biggest challenge. Coordinating remote hearings and scheduling panels, conducting hearings remotely or telephonically/videoconferencing."
Ken Nolan, Chief Appraiser, Dallas Central Appraisal District: "Notices were mailed one month later than normal. No in-person, informal meetings with appraisers were allowed. One-member ARB [Appraisal Review Board] panels were used, and no in-person hearings were held until after certification. All hearings during the summer were by telephone."
Michael Page (Hays Central): "Our next challenge was to devise a way to conduct hearings if we were unable to reopen the office. My staff went to work investigating how to do this, starting from scratch as we had never conducted virtual hearings before."
Jack Barnett (Harris County): "Within approximately 60 days, the creation of virtual hearings went from an idea to reality – through development, which included submitting evidence; writing the instructions for appraisers, the ARB members and property owners; testing; and getting the instructions to the property owners."
Popp Hutcheson: What were some major successes from the 2020 property tax protest process?
Jack Barnett (Harris County): "The major successes were keeping employees healthy and employed and keeping the virus out of the building… Another big success was the development of virtual meetings with appraisers and ARB hearings. Even with a record number of protests this year, the ARB turned over the appraisal records for certification in August so the district could get the appraisal rolls to the jurisdictions."
Ken Nolan (Dallas Central): "Certifying the appraisal roll during the summer, successfully implementing the 'Tax Transparency Website' on time and limiting the spread of the virus."
Brent South (Hunt County): "Having the ability to provide the taxing units (with) a certified estimate was a major success. Without this most CADs would not have been able to provide entities a timely appraisal roll."
Scott Griscom (Bexar): "We found that working remotely with agents and the public proved to be far more efficient than we had ever dreamed… Even though we sent notices later, we were able to certify at over 90% complete on July 25."
Popp Hutcheson: Do you expect any of the procedural changes to stay in place in 2021 and beyond?
Ken Nolan (Dallas Central): "We will once again limit in-person informal meetings with appraisers and stay focused on online protests and telephone meetings to resolve protests. We will probably revert to in-person hearings, since it allows many more hearings to be scheduled each day."
Scott Griscom (Bexar): "We fully intend to continue to offer appearance at the ARB via Zoom as well as telephone and electronic meetings/hearings that have been met with favorable comments from owners, agents, and staff alike. We will continue to expand the online protest option for nearly all properties and encourage the use of it to resolve protests as well. We plan to stay closed to the public for the foreseeable future due to the upswing in positivity rate experienced within the community at large."
Jack Barnett (Harris County): "We will continue to offer and improve the virtual meetings and give property owners more options to work with the district from their homes or other off-site locations."
Michael Page (Hays Central): "Feedback from property owners shows that many like the ability to attend a video conference hearing without actually traveling to the district office. I foresee us continuing to offer this option to owners in the future as a way to provide improved customer service."
Along with the challenges COVID-19 forced upon the property tax system, appraisal districts discovered tremendous opportunities to innovate and take advantage of their successes in adapting to change. The efficiency with which appraisal districts revolutionized processed that had been in place for decades - in a significantly short time - is commendable.
And moving forward, the procedural transformation we witnessed in 2020 will continue to redefine the working environment within the property tax system.