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Property Tax Resources

May
04

Three Keys to Protesting Retail Property Tax Assessments

Shopping center owners need to be especially vigilant regarding unfair taxation in 2022.

Property owners should expect to receive a Notice of Appraised Value from their appraisal district by mid-April. This year it is imperative that retail property owners submit an assessment protest prior to the deadline and help to establish fair taxable valuations in the post-pandemic marketplace.

Since March of 2020, COVID-19 has brought uncertainty and ongoing challenges to real estate owners. People often discuss the commercial real estate "winners and losers" of COVID-19, and of the four commercial real estate food groups, retail certainly suffered one of the heaviest initial blows. But how has the property type recovered as the pandemic has evolved? This article explores where exactly retail falls, and then offers strategies to argue more effectively for reduced assessments.

Evolving trends

To develop a full picture of the current state of shopping centers, one must look back to 2019 and early 2020 before the pandemic. In 2018, approximately 5,800 retail stores closed nationwide and only 3,200 opened, for an overall deficit of 2,600 locations. In 2019, the size of the annual store deficit nearly doubled with 5,000 more closures than openings. Ecommerce sales volume rose steadily from 2010 through 2019, which, coupled with accelerating physical store closures, clearly indicate a slowdown in the need for traditional storefronts.

In 2021, county assessors were generally conservative in raising values, primarily due to pandemic-related issues such as tenants going out of business and owners being forced to defer and abate rent. Additionally, shopping center transaction volume dropped throughout 2020, which forced appraisal districts to rely on limited data to arrive at market rents and capitalization rates for their 2021 models.

County appraisal districts preparing assessments for 2022 will most likely attempt to significantly raise taxable values to reflect what they view as a retail rebound that occurred during 2021. While assessors may conclude that retail is recovering well as the pandemic evolves, the data and overall trends fail to support that position.

If an appraisal district takes an aggressive stance in raising values, citing the "booming return of in-person retail shopping," it will be crucial for appellants to show the lingering state of uncertainty in the retail real estate market. Toward that end, the following three strategies will be keys to successfully arguing for reduced assessments.

1. Consider the tenant mix. When appealing taxable assessed values, either during the administrative process or later in district court, property owners must consider the tenant mix of their shopping centers and how the pandemic affected their retailers.

For instance, a center containing a drycleaner and a trampoline park will take much longer for those tenants to recover from the pandemic than many other properties. With work-from-home becoming the norm, many people no longer need pressed clothes. In addition, ball pits and trampolines crowded with children fail to appeal to a pandemic-conscious society. These trends are reflected in rents, with rates for specific uses such as these flattening or even declining since the onset of the pandemic.

2. Review the property's classification. The second strategy for appealing values is to review how the property is classified on the tax rolls. As many owners begin to utilize space in alternative ways, the center may no longer be operating entirely as a retail center. In other words, it may be more appropriate for it to receive either a light industrial or fulfillment center classification.

Amazon, for example, has been converting shopping malls into last-mile distribution centers steadily for the past six years. Amazon converted about 25 shopping malls into distribution centers between 2016 and 2019, Coresight Research reported. Converting stores to distribution spaces in a shopping center will drastically reduce foot traffic for any remaining retail tenants and negatively affect the customer experience, resulting in a lack of desirability for retail investors.

3. Demonstrate shrinking retailer footprints. It is no secret that consumer visits to physical retail locations is nowhere near pre-pandemic levels. Black Friday foot traffic in 2021, for instance, was down approximately 28 percent from 2019 levels, according to Sensormatic Solutions data. While in-person shopping will likely remain an element of the retail experience, there is a lingering sense of uncertainty surrounding its significance, especially with the strong adoption of curbside pickup.

Some major retailers have addressed this issue by downsizing stores. Target stores, for example, have historically averaged 130,000 square feet, but of the 30 stores the brand opened in 2020, all but one used a smaller format, according to pymnts.com. These small-format and college campus stores average 40,000 square feet, while some are much smaller.

It is reasonable to suspect that other retailers will follow suit, rendering many larger, anchor spaces within shopping centers obsolete and harder to fill with tenants. As the tide shifts to a "less is more" philosophy when it comes to store footprints, both appraisal districts and taxpayers should incorporate this increased risk into value calculations by raising cap rates in their models. Not only do shrinking store footprints and conversion of space to distribution uses bring an increased level of uncertainty to the asset class, but last-mile distribution centers also fail to command retail rents.

When shopping center owners receive assessed values for property taxation in the coming months, they should compare the assessments to values received in prior years, especially 2019. If the valuation trend of a particular property fails to make sense – either due to the overall uncertainty and risk surrounding brick-and-mortar retail or due to property-specific issues such as tenant mix and use of space – it will be extremely important for the taxpayer to act by protesting the property's taxable assessed value. 

Sam Woolsey is a property tax consultant at Austin, Texas, law firm Popp Hutcheson PLLC., which focuses its practice on property tax disputes and is the Texas member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC), the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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Apr
27

How to Dispute Unfair Property Assessments in Six Steps

Multifamily owners can avoid excessive property taxes by being prepared with the right research and documentation.

Property tax systems vary from state to state across the country, with differing procedures in each assessor's jurisdiction. Complicating things further, the personalities of assessors and their staff influence the way they interact with property owners or their agents.

It is the responsibility of the property owner or their agent to learn and adapt to the procedures and behaviors at work in their assessor's offices. However, there are universal preemptive steps that property owners in any jurisdiction can take to combat excessive valuations. These property-specific action items and best practices can significantly increase the chances of a successful valuation protest.

1. Document Property Financial Statements

In most appraisal systems, income-producing apartment property will be valued using the income approach. Arguably the most important pieces of information the apartment owner can present in protesting assessed values are the property's rent rolls and profit-and-loss statements. The timely preparation and completion of these documents prior to a protest is essential to any discussion of fair market value. Key line items such as potential gross income, vacancy and collection loss, and net operating income can assist in negotiating lower assessed values. Market rent, in-place rents, and occupancy are key indicators on a rent roll and should be shared with assessors, in most cases, to help them determine how a property is performing.

2. Conduct Market Rent Surveys

Collaborating with property managers to finalize market rent surveys can provide extremely valuable evidence to discuss with the assessor. Most jurisdictions rely on general market data to compute values across the submarket. Market surveys specific to a property typically entail more reliable data and can be used to strengthen the property owner's market value analysis.

3. Vet Comparable Sets

In addition to a market value analysis, many jurisdictions allow taxpayers to present an equity argument. In an equity claim, property owners or their agents will be looking at assessed values of the subject property's set of comparables, which are similar properties in the area that can provide reference points in determining market value. If the appraiser's list of comparables contains apartments not found on the market survey, the taxpayer will have a good reason to request that those be removed from the set being discussed. This strategy is valuable when an appraiser or assessor is using higher-class apartments in the subject property's submarket, thereby inflating the equitably assessed value.

4. Document Deferred Maintenance and Bids

An argument often heard during valuation protests is "my property has deferred maintenance, and therefore should be valued at a discount." This argument will be more likely to succeed if the taxpayer validates their assertions using contractor bids, pictures, or some proof of the amount of maintenance that needs to be done. Obtain bids before the valuation date, detailing work that needs to be done, including the cost of materials and labor. Also before the valuation date, document damages with pictures, if possible. Following this advice will differentiate the subject property from a long list of others claiming deferred maintenance with no support for the cost of repairs.

5. Learn Relevant Tax Laws

Property owners should educate themselves about the property tax system in their property's state and specific jurisdiction. Deadlines play a very important role, so make sure to meet and understand them. Missing a deadline can forfeit the opportunity to contest an assessed value, precluding relief for an excessive appraisal. Property tax laws and local regulations can be daunting, and the avenues that lead to success can be easily overlooked. In some situations, the property owner will want to speak with a local property tax professional to explore available options.

6. Build and Maintain Assessor Relationships

It is important to realize that the assessor assigned to a protest will likely be someone the taxpayer will be interfacing with throughout the valuation process and potentially for the entire term of property ownership. Integrity and honesty in every interaction with the assessor will help to establish trust and strengthen this relationship over time, which will benefit the taxpayer in the long run. The simple act of beginning a dialogue with the assessor early in the protest process can increase a property owner's chances of reaching a timely and successful settlement.

Advance completion of financial statements that could support a tax protest should be an annual priority for any property owner, as this data is invaluable in arguing for a lower assessment. While this sounds like a routine process for most property owners, the assessment timeline is different in every jurisdiction and may not coincide with your typical year-end financial audit. Finalizing market rent surveys and collecting bids for deferred maintenance will add to the chances of success. Learning the property tax rules and deadlines affecting the property, or having an educated team versed in the state or local market, will directly impact success. Finally, building long-lasting relationships with assessors based on openness and reliability is not only common courtesy, but can make assessors more receptive during the appeal process, and therefore increase the likelihood of achieving desired results.

James Johnson is a senior property tax consultant in the Austin, Texas law firm of Popp Hutcheson PLLC, which focuses its practice on property tax disputes and is the Texas member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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Dec
22

How to Lower Excessive Property Tax Assessments in a COVID-19 World

The right to appeal property tax assessments may be more important than ever in the wake of COVID- 19. Despite the pandemic's disastrous and continuing effects on the value of many classes of real estate, some property owners saw tax assessments increase dramatically in 2021 and fear 2022 will bring additional increases.

What is the Value, Anyway?

When property owners receive their 2022 assessments, their first step should be to determine whether the valuation is, indeed, excessive. The right to appeal an assessment does not mean that an appeal is always prudent, so carefully analyze your property's performance in the context of the current valuation.

For example, suppose you own a mid-size, multitenant office property outside of Austin, Texas. Market vacancy rates increased to 20% in the fourth quarter of 2021 from 12% at year-end 2020, but asking market rents increased 10% in that time. Your office property fared better than the general market and only increased its vacancy to 5% when one small tenant did not renew its short-term lease.

The property's in-place rental rates were unaffected and unpaid rent from tenants at year-end 2021 was minimal. The property's assessment for 2022 indicates a 20% decrease from the previous assessment.

Although there are many additional circumstances to consider, in this scenario, it may be best to forego an appeal.

In many cases, however, property owners may see dramatic jumps in assessments for 2022 that do not reflect actual property performance and market fundamentals. Taxpayers and assessors alike are seeking how best to analyze the value implications of the past 18 months on different property types going forward.

Vacancy levels have affected individual office properties quite distinctly, and pandemic performance seems to be largely influenced by market location, tenant mix, and landlords' flexibility in negotiating lease terms moving forward.

An Uncertain Future for Office

The office market has suffered from continuing uncertainty despite a recovery in jobs. According to Cushman & Wakefield's Q2 Office Market Beat report, "even as occupiers increasingly clarify post- pandemic future workforce policies and set targets for employees to return the office, leasing activity has remained below pre-pandemic levels."

Moving into the fourth quarter of 2021, there is uncertainty among employers as to what return-to- office policies will even look like. Resurgence of COVID-19 cases in many markets, as well as dramatic shifts in labor preferences during historically high rates of workforce migration, have forced many employers to reconsider or delay their initial return-to-office policies.

Delivery of office product that began construction before the pandemic exacerbates vacancy woes. Cushman & Wakefield reported that, as of the second quarter of 2021, "more office space was delivered in each of the past three quarters than any other quarter in the past three years except Q4 2019."

However, vacancy levels have affected individual office properties quite distinctly, and pandemic performance seems to be largely influenced by market location, tenant mix, and landlords' flexibility in negotiating lease terms moving forward.

An Insider's Perspective on Value

Hartman Income REIT owns and manages office, retail, industrial, and flex properties across Texas. David Wheeler is Hartman's chief investment officer and executive vice president and has been with the firm since 2003. He shared some insight into what he has seen across the market during the past 18months and his expectations for the future.

How was your occupancy affected during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Wheeler: "The pandemic has both positively and negatively affected our occupancy rates here at Hartman. At the end of 2020, we closed about 3% lower in occupancy, but as we moved into 2021, maintaining our focus on the small tenants and flexible lease terms, we captured 130,000 square feet of net absorption in the first quarter. Today, we are on track to reach 1,000,000 square feet in new, signed leases this year, a record breaking number for the firm."

How is your leasing activity currently?

Wheeler: "Our leasing activity is currently standing on a very solid foundation; we intend to end the year with this 1,000,000 square feet of newly signed leases. We also recently launched BIZSUITES, a new business entity aimed to address the post-pandemic workplace needs of small businesses and start-ups, which has drawn significant attention to our suburban office buildings."

Have you seen certain classes of properties struggle more than others?

Wheeler: "Retail and office property classes struggled more than industrial and flex. Industrial space continued to rise in popularity during the pandemic as many people moved a significant portion of their spending online to e-commerce. However, certain types of retail and office benefitted during the pandemic. For example, grocers and home-improvement retailers benefitted tremendously. For office, the suburban buildings like Hartman gained significant occupancy as businesses and individuals emptied from high-density central business districts."

What do you see as any shifts in space utilization that may be necessary to maintain successful levels of occupancy moving forward?

Wheeler: "Dedensification is an important shift in space utilization that is already taking place. I see it upholding occupancy numbers at least through the uncertain times of the pandemic. For

the past decade, office space per employee steadily shrank from 250 square feet to less than 100 square feet. Now, with health concerns, space trends are erring on the side of more space per person, with some businesses even moving back to the individual office model. At Hartman, we've had several tenants expand their space to allow more breathing room in their offices."

What is a property owner to do?

The best evidence for a value correction is the property's actual performance. Communicate clearly and early with your assessor and provide all relevant documentation.

Office property owners should describe concessions and flexible lease terms that may affect valuation. Occupancy and rental rates alone may paint an inaccurate picture of the property's performance. Did tenants receive any free rent? Did new tenants sign short-term leases, resulting in higher long-term vacancy risk? Did you provide significantly higher tenant improvement allowances to incentivize tenants?

As Mr. Wheeler indicated, Hartman maintained occupancy rates in its office and retail centers by focusing on flexible lease terms. Such terms may affect valuation differently than traditional, longer- term leases but changes such as these may prove essential to correct valuation.

Remember, everyone is working toward a goal of accurate valuation under challenging and unpredictable market conditions. Whether communicating directly to the assessor or during the appeal process, conveying specific factors that have affected your property's value is the best approach to achieve a fair assessment in 2022 and beyond.

Rachel Duck, Esq.
Rachel Duck, CMI, is a Director and Senior Property Tax Consultant at Austin, Texas, law firm Popp Hutcheson PLLC. Popp Hutcheson is the Texas member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC), the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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Aug
03

COVID-19’s Impact on Affordable Housing Property Tax Valuations

The pandemic leaves affordable housing property owners vulnerable and searching for ways to reduce their property tax liabilities.

After a pandemic year that decimated rental incomes, owners of affordable housing properties should prepare to protest property tax assessments that overstate their liability.

As stay-at-home orders in 2020 forced businesses across the county to change their operations, a large portion of the labor force began to work from home. But many renters, including a large contingent of affordable housing residents, found themselves without jobs and struggling to pay rent.

Job losses and other issues related to COVID-19 adversely affected tenants and property owners alike, straining rental income while adding the cost of new safety procedures and equipment to landlords' operating costs. To reduce property tax liabilities and limit financial losses from the pandemic, it is now crucial for owners of affordable housing to correctly navigate procedures across jurisdictions and weigh all relevant valuation considerations for their properties.

Here are key areas for affordable housing owners to consider in arguing for a lower assessment.

Procedures have changed

The global pandemic transformed interactions between appraisal districts and property owners throughout the 2020 tax year. Many appraisal districts across Texas closed their doors to the public and shifted formal and informal meetings to a virtual setting to combat the spread of COVID-19.

As hearings approach in 2021, appraisal districts are expected to keep many of the pandemic-related practices in place. Telephone and video conferences will likely be the preferred format for hearings and informal meetings, but taxpayers should be prepared to appear in person should the jurisdiction require. Property owners can avoid procedural uncertainty by proactively communicating with the appraisal districts and being sure to meet requirements related to the protest process. Appraisal district websites can also be a helpful resource with regard to procedural guidelines.

Affordable housing performance suffered

The pandemic presented unprecedented challenges for the affordable housing industry. Many tenants lost income as result of job losses and experienced increased financial hardships. The federal government provided economic aid in the form of stimulus checks, which enabled some renters to pay partial or full rental amounts. As the pandemic ravaged on, however, stimulus checks ran out and many tenants ceased to pay rent, cutting into property owners' revenue. Nine out of 10 low- and moderate-income housing providers experienced a revenue decrease as result of COVID-19, according to a study from NDP Analytics.

While tenants' financial difficulties contributed to decreased property revenues, property owners also incurred increased expenses. Property owners were forced to invest in personal protective equipment, increase their cleaning standards and take other measures to ensure the safety of their employees and residents. Research from NDP Analytics also found that low- and moderate-income housing providers across the country averaged an 11.8% decline in revenue and 14.8% surge in operating expenses due to the pandemic. These additional expenses, combined with decreased revenues, created major hardships for many in the affordable housing industry.

Property tax valuation outlook

The Texas Property Tax Code provides two methods for protesting excessive property tax valuations: a market value remedy and an equal and uniform remedy. A market value claim argues that the assessment is excessive based on the three approaches to valuing commercial real estate: income, cost, and sales. Assessors and appraisers typically value an affordable housing property using the income approach. Assessors will gather market income, vacancy, and expense data to arrive at a net operating income, and then capitalize that using a market cap rate reflective of market performance. Taxpayers should evaluate the assessor's cap rate and argue for a more appropriate rate if needed.

Decreased net operating incomes at affordable housing properties in 2020 could result in lower 2021 assessments. When addressing valuation concerns with appraisal districts, property owners should provide evidence of financial strain such as concessions and reduced rent. Data of this sort provides insight to appraisal districts on the performance of a particular property or market and can aid in achieving a value reduction.

The Texas Property Tax Code also requires that properties be appraised equally and uniformly when compared to a reasonable amount of comparable properties. Affordable housing owners should be sure their properties fall within a similar range of values with other like properties on a square-footage basis. Assessors must consider the characteristics of affordable housing projects when choosing comparable properties. Valid comparable selections will allow for a true comparison that reflects the unique characteristics of this property type.

Address tax rates, too

Assessed valuations and tax rates are the two components that determine a property owner's tax expense in Texas. Disgruntled property owners often place the blame of a higher tax bill upon the assessor and forget to address the issue of tax rates.

Taxing entities determine their respective tax rates in the fall, once appraisal districts have certified their appraisal rolls upon completion of the administrative protest process. Property owners should not only protest their property taxes, but attend tax rate hearings and voice their opinions with elected officials to minimize their property tax expense.

Managing Property Taxes

COVID-19 strained affordable housing property owners throughout the past 12 months. Skillfully managing property tax expenses will be vital to the financial health of the real estate. The decision to appeal a tax assessment and partner with a knowledgeable property tax professional will be crucial to successfully reducing assessed values and navigating challenges in the pandemic's wake.

Carlos Suarez is a tax consultant at the Austin, Texas, law firm Popp Hutcheson PLLC, the Texas member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.

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Apr
06

Industrial Landlords: Beware of Higher Property Tax Assessments

Find out why not all industrial properties deserve increased tax assessments, contrary to popular belief.

While some commercial property types struggled to stay relevant in 2020, industrial real estate seemed supercharged by the pandemic. This year, tax assessors are likely to use strong investor and occupier demand for some industrial properties to support significantly higher assessments for all industrial real estate. They may see this as a solution to make up for value losses in the hospitality, retail, and office sectors. That means industrial property owners should prepare for major assessment increases and begin building arguments to establish their properties' true taxable value.

E-commerce in perspective

If e-commerce was rising before 2020, it skyrocketed after the initial shock of the pandemic. The e-commerce share of total retail sales jumped to 16.1% at the end of the second quarter of 2020 from 11.8% in the first quarter and 10.8% a year earlier, according to the Census Bureau. As e-commerce grew, so too did industrial leasing demand, as online retailers secured spaces to process incoming goods and fulfill orders for shipment to consumers.

The e-commerce operations driving the surge in demand brought with them a list of demands to serve their logistical plans, however. Their preferences typically included locations close to major transportation corridors, proximity to their customers for deliveries, high ceiling heights and other traits necessary for handling the rapid growth of logistics-related technologies.

For 2021 industrial property tax appeals, it is important to understand that not all industrial real estate is equally suited to meet the demands of e-commerce operations. In practice, occupier demand that makes some properties more valuable will often lower the marketability and value of properties not fitting that demand. This, in turn, can affect a property's taxable value.

A Checklist for Appealing Tax Assessments on Industrial Property

The following are issues to consider in 2021 industrial property tax appeals:

Pick the right approach. There are several appraisal methods that assessors can use to value a property, but taxpayers should pay special attention in 2021 to the sales comparison approach. Though Texas is a non-disclosure state, meaning the state does not require a buyer to reveal the purchase price for acquired real estate, assessors have tools at their disposal to obtain or back-into purchase prices.

For tax year 2021, it will be important to note that although there may have been a few transactions, overall industrial sales volume generally declined from the prior year's numbers among the major metropolitan markets. In the second quarter of 2020 especially, the drop off in sales indicate that lenders and investors had to reevaluate the market and their underwriting assumptions.

For the sales comparison approach to value properties accurately, the properties and transactions used as evidence need to be comparable to the subject property. If that is not the case, calculations may place an unnecessary premium on the property.

For example, sales of warehouses with cold storage capabilities should not be directly compared to a conventional warehouse without a cold storage component. Thus, if an assessing jurisdiction raises an assessed value based on limited sales information, chances are the sale is not representative or comparable to the taxpayer's property. The taxpayer should consider raising this issue in their property tax appeal.

Consider property age and class. The industrial real estate sector serves a wide variety of uses that require special buildouts or designs that must be completed for the intended tenant to conduct their business effectively. For example, older, Class C industrial buildings tend to have smaller square footage and lower ceiling heights than more modern spaces. With the rising cost of transportation and emphasis on logistical efficiency, these attributes make Class C properties less marketable than newer, Class A or B industrial buildings.

According to CBRE, the warehouses built in 2019 are typically greater than 100,000 square feet and have ceilings that average 3.7 feet higher than warehouses built between 2002 and 2007. The increased space is primarily for more inventory and reverse logistics for returns. The newest buildings also feature more bay doors and parking space for large trucks. If the assessor is comparing properties and valuing a 2002-built warehouse the same way as the newer product without adjustments for class and age, the taxpayer may have an additional issue to raise in their appeal.

Location is critical. Location is becoming more important than ever to the tenant. Since land is more expensive the closer it is to the central business district of any city, the potential for using the space efficiently becomes more crucial as well. Assessors may increase the value of properties that are close to these markets.

E-commerce businesses demand locations that can speed last-mile deliveries to consumers. Proximity to transportation corridors is a significant advantage for tenants because it improves the timeliness of the supply chain. If an industrial property does not meet current demand because of its location, that may be an avenue for relief from increased property tax valuations.

Is rent paid, or deferred? Governments have deemed some industrial real estate tenants to be essential businesses during the pandemic, and this has limited the disruption of rent payments to certain landlords. During property tax appeals, it will be important to highlight the properties that suffered decreases in net operating income and occupancy, so they are not treated like the properties that saw no disruption in rent payments.

Owners of industrial properties may be able to fight and defeat the property tax increases potentially heading their way. Keys to winning assessment appeals will include following the industrial trends and being able to distinguish the taxpayer's property from the desirable properties that are trading, possessing evolving technology, being in the right location, andcollecting strong rents. 

Darlene Sullivan is a partner in Austin, Texas, law firm Popp Hutcheson PLLC, the Texas member of American Property Tax Counsel.  Justin Raes is a tax consultant at Popp Hutcheson.
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Mar
11

The Property Tax Response to COVID-19

Valuation and procedural changes that were implemented in 2020 may have significant effects on owners' 2021 tax liabilities.

Expertly managing property tax liability is more important than ever in 2021. The COVID-19 pandemic pummeled both real estate and business personal property values in the past year, forcing local jurisdictions to overhaul procedures that had been in place for decades. Many of those procedural changes will likely continue this year as assessments finally register the pandemic's full effect. Understanding the procedural changes made by local jurisdictions, and new valuation considerations for both real and personal properties, will be key. 

New Procedures Volatile 

When the pandemic hit, neither appraisal districts nor property owners knew how long the crisis would last. Most appraisal districts closed their doors to the public and quickly converted all informal and formal meetings to telephone or video conferences. Moving into 2021, much of that uncertainty remains. Most jurisdictions will likely continue to rely upon virtual formats for this year's informal meetings and hearings, which generally begin in April and continue throughout the summer. Property owners should be prepared, however, for procedural changes that may be implemented as conditions change. Communication with assessors will be vital, and taxpayers should make sure to provide all requested documentation in a timely manner. Communicating early and often about the valuation and protest will ensure no deadlines are missed and no procedural changes are overlooked.

Managing Real Estate Taxes 

While the fundamental valuation and appeal process for real property will remain the same in Texas, procedural changes initiated in 2020 will likely continue in many appraisal districts. Assessments will reflect the property's value as of Jan. 1, 2021, and notices will likely be mailed in mid-April as usual. The deadline for property owners to protest their 2021 real property values will be unchanged at May 15 in most cases, or 30 days after receipt of the notice of appraised value. 

Property owners can expect the continued option to protest assessments online, as well as telephone and video conferencing options for hearings. While these procedures were enacted and refined in 2020, the combination of virtual hearings and a potentially increased volume of protests in 2021 may push hearing schedules past their typical end (in June or July) and into the fall.

A Real Impact on Values 

Undoubtedly, 2020 was a unique year for property performance. Some property types sustained disastrous effects from the pandemic and stay-at-home orders while others fared the year well. Because Texas' valuation date for the current tax year is Jan. 1, 2021, many valuation methodologies will rely upon a property's performance over the 12 months preceding that date to inform their value metrics. 

Shopping centers, restaurants, theaters and hotels are among those properties that suffered greatly in 2020. Sadly, many closed their doors for good after struggling to perform this past year. Hotels saw revenue dip as much as 80 percent. Restaurants and theaters experienced government-ordered closures for most of the year, and capacity restrictions for the remainder. 

The resulting drag on potential rents, occupancy and cap rate assumptions has pushed down values. Property owners should see some recognition of value decline in these most-affected property groups, but to what extent remains to be seen.

Business Personal Taxes 

On the business personal property front, we expect deadlines to mirror the statutory language for filing exemptions and rendition reports, which list owned machinery, furniture, equipment, vehicles, merchandise and other business personal property. Due to COVID-19, many large appraisal districts extended the rendition deadline for all taxpayers in 2020, but we expect the typical formal extension request process to be back in place for 2021. All extension requests must be made in writing to the appraisal district before the statutory deadline of April 15. An approved extension allows the taxpayer an additional 15 to 30 days past the statutory deadline. 

Taxpayers with significant business personal property investment need to thoroughly analyze how COVID-19 limited or otherwise compromised the usage of their income-producing assets. Assessors and appraisers rely almost exclusively on the cost approach to value business personal property. In this climate, however, the simple depreciation they normally apply will not capture pandemic-related losses to produce an accurate market valuation.

To account for the loss in value, owners should consider developing an additional obsolescence factor to apply after typical depreciation. The Texas Property Tax Code allows for the inclusion of all forms of depreciation including economic obsolescence, which occurs when factors or trends occurring outside the property reduce its value. 

Each owner will require their own, unique obsolescence factor to measure economic impact. There are many ways to calculate an economic obsolescence factor, depending on the taxpayer's core industry. Analyzing production versus capacity is most often beneficial for manufacturers, for example, while income metrics are better suited for some retailers and medical providers. 

We recommend also doing a lookback for at least three years to properly illustrate the COVID-19 impact. The property tax team must truly understand the business in order to arrive at the proper factor.

What About Tax Rates? 

In addition to assessed value, the second piece of a property owner's tax liability is the tax rate. Taxing entities set their tax rates in the fall, after appraisal districts determine property values. 

Should 2021's overall property valuations decline, property owners should not expect an exactly equal decline in their tax liability. If the total tax levy falls significantly due to the valuation factors affecting property values as of Jan. 1, 2021, it is possible — and maybe even likely — that tax rates will rise. 

No one can predict tax rates with certainty, but owners would be wise to budget conservatively for anticipated tax liabilities. A 40 percent decline in revenue may not translate to a 40 percent decline in the assessed property valuation or tax liability for 2021.

Partnership is Key 

Navigating property taxation in a COVID-19 world can be overwhelming. It can be particularly challenging to stay on top of frequent procedural changes, and to understand the sometimes unique valuation metrics affecting real and business personal property. Partnering with an experienced property tax team can give owners peace of mind in a tumultuous year.

Rachel Duck, Esq.
Lisa Laubacher, Esq.
Lisa Laubacher, CMI, is a director and senior property tax consultant specializing in business personal property. Rachel Duck, CMI, is a director and senior property tax consultant specializing in real property. Both are at Austin, Texas, law firm Popp Hutcheson PLLC, the Texas member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC), the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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Dec
11

Property Tax Process Adjusts to Pandemic

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."

Moving forward
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.

Rachel Duck, CMI is a Director and Senior Property Tax Consultant at the Austin, Texas, law firm Popp Hutcheson PLLC. Popp Hutcheson devotes its practice to the start to finish representation of taxpayers in property tax matters and is the Texas member of the American Property Tax Counsel (APTC), the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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Jul
08

ATTN OWNERS: BEWARE OF PROPERTY TAX INCREASES DURING COVID-19

What do you need to know to fight excessive increases in Texas this year and next?

As if a global economic contraction and what is most likely an unfolding recession across the United States were not enough, many commercial real estate owners across Texas have seen their taxable property values increase this year. While many of these owners are calling for property tax relief to offset the financial burden they are suffering due to stay-at-home orders and business closures triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, they may be unsure of potential remedies to pursue or arguments to make.

Given that the date of valuation is Jan. 1, 2020, property owners searching for relief are limited as to the information that appraisal districts will consider for this tax year. Potentially limited relief in 2020 does not mean taxpayers lack options, however.

There are three key strategies that commercial property owners need to implement in 2020 if they want to maximize reductions in taxable value for this and future years.

1. Consider filing a 2020 appeal – even if the taxable value did not increase from the prior year. The state was already shutting down non-essential activities as appraisal districts were preparing to mail out their 2020 Notices of Appraised Value. Most appraisal districts delayed the mailings while exploring various options, including freezing property values and granting temporary exemptions for properties affected.

In the end, most appraisal districts conducted reappraisals as originally planned and the Texas Attorney General shot down the idea of temporary exemptions as, in his view, the statutory authority allowing issuance of exemptions did not cover purely economic, nonphysical damage to property. The result of this was that, in the majority of cases, the values sent out had no consideration for losses due to the pandemic.

A taxable value that did not increase year over year in an up market may not warrant an appeal during ordinary times, but these are not ordinary times. In 2020, such appeals are important to taxpayers for several reasons.

First, the focus on the pandemic has shifted the narrative that dominated the news cycle in the months in and around the date of valuation. Does anyone remember the retail apocalypse? According to Business Insider, over 9,300 stores closed in 2019 and thousands more were slated for closure in 2020. This was all before COVID-19. If your property was affected by this or other economic factors, a freeze in value may not appropriately reflect the market value of the asset.

Secondly, appealing now may be a sound decision because the 2020 value may be used as a benchmark for future relief. In Texas, each year stands on its own and is valued independently of prior years. However, given that the effects of the pandemic are unlike anything we have seen before, it is reasonable to predict that in order to track the decline in value, appraisal districts may look to the 2020 appraisal roll as a starting point.

In Texas, the deadline to appeal property tax values is May 15, or 30 days from the date the Notice of Appraised Value was delivered to the property owner. Given that some jurisdictions delayed their mailings, it is important to review your Notice of Value to determine your deadline to appeal.

2. Consider the tax rate as well as taxable value. It is important to remember that a value freeze without a freeze in tax rates may still result in an increase in taxes. While actions taken by the Texas Legislature in 2019 promised relief by addressing tax rates, even those measures are currently up for debate as local districts are questioning whether the pandemic allows them to exceed the revenue-raising limits put in place by the Legislature.

Texas may not resolve this dispute until it assesses the full extent of economic damage and weighs it against the needs of the taxing units to meet their budgets. The appeals process will still be the first avenue for relief, but a very close second will be to lobby the local taxing jurisdictions to not raise, and perhaps even lower, property tax rates.

3. Keep track and provide documentation of COVID-19 losses. Even though COVID-19 losses may not be fully considered for tax year 2020, taxpayers need to initiate conversations about the economic impact to the property's financials so that appraisal districts can start building the valuation models for 2021 with these factors in mind.

In 2021, property owners should be ready to present documentation demonstrating any declines in occupancy or revenue, as well as any bankruptcies affecting the property. If the taxpayer's current record keeping does not reflect slow-paying or non-paying tenants, consider tracking those items. Changes to business models, such as adding patio seating or curbside pick-up lanes, may also affect the ultimate indication of value for 2021, so keeping track of those expenses will be equally important.

As property owners go through the 2020 appeals process, it may be beneficial to consider keeping the option open to file a lawsuit in district court to seek additional relief. The longer the property owner and its advisors have to gather information and calculate the depth of the economic impact, the better positioned the team will be to obtain a fair 2020 value.

In the end, being proactive during these times is essential to obtaining relief where it appears there may be no relief in sight.

Darlene Sullivan is a Principal in Austin, Texas, law firm Popp Hutcheson PLLC, which represents taxpayers in property tax matters. The firm is the Texas member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC), the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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May
04

Texas' Taxing Times

​How changes to the Texas property tax law may impact you, and how COVID-19 plays a role this season.

Property taxes are big news in Texas. Last year, property taxes were a primary focus of the 86th Legislature, and Gov. Greg Abbott deemed property tax relief so important that he declared it an emergency item.

The 2019 legislative session produced significant modifications to tax law. Here's a rundown on the most noteworthy changes affecting taxpayers in 2020, along with a look at how fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic may complicate the taxpayer's position.

Removing the Veil

Property taxes are not only big news, but they are also confusing, particularly given the "Texas two-step" appraisal and assessment process. After an appraisal district values a property, taxing entities separately tax that property based upon the final determined value. For a single property, a taxpayer may owe five or more taxing entities spread among three assessors' offices. Understanding the ultimate tax liability for such a property can be a monumental task for taxpayers.

Senate Bill 2 addressed the confusion and promoted transparency and truth in taxation, earning it the title of "The Texas Property Tax Reform and Transparency Act of 2019." Each appraisal district is now required to maintain a website with useful information that allows taxpayers to better understand their tax bills. The website must include the three pertinent tax rates summarized in the table below (the names of which Senate Bill 2 also revised for clarity). Additionally, appraisal districts will calculate the effect that each taxing entity's proposed rate would have on its overall tax collection and include an estimate for any proposed increase's effect on a $100,000 home. Finally, the websites must provide the date and location of public hearings to address concerns with any proposed increases.

 Revenue Increase Limits

In addition to transparency, lawmakers fought to create some avenue of property tax relief. What ultimately passed between Senate Bill 2 and House Bill 3 was a limit on tax revenue increases by jurisdiction. This restricts the amount that taxing entities can increase revenues through tax rate setting.

Beginning in 2020, most taxing entities will have a maximum revenue increase limit of 3.5% year over year. To adopt a tax rate that increases revenue over 3.5%, that taxing entity must call an election for approval. This new cap is significantly lower than the prior law, which allowed for up to an 8% increase in tax rates year over year without voter approval. Junior college districts, hospital districts and other small taxing units including those with tax rates of 2.5 cents or less per $100 of valuation retain their 8% permitted increase. (For clarity, this article expresses tax rates in dollars per $100 of assessed value.)

Relief from school district taxation falls under a separate calculation, which was revised by House Bill 3. For the 2019-2020 school year, maintenance and operations (M&O) rates will be compressed by 7%. For school districts with a Tier 1 $1.00 M&O rate, the rate drops by 7 cents to 93 cents on the dollar.

For 2020-2021, local school district rates will compress by an average of 13 cents, based on statewide property value growth exceeding 2.5%. The M&O rate caps will vary across school districts, and the Texas Education Agency will publish all maximum compressed rates.

Other Relevant Procedures and Policies

While tax system demystification and revenue increase limits were the major reforms, lawmakers enacted many administrative and procedural changes as well. Administrative process changes now prohibit value increases at an Appraisal Review Board (ARB) hearing, add ARB member training requirements, and create special ARB panels to hear protests for complex properties. Additionally, the business personal property rendition date moved to April 15.

In a win for those litigating appraised values, the state revised Section 42.08 of the property tax code, allowing a taxpayer to pay less than the full amount of tax on a property with pending litigation. Previously, if the final property value from a lawsuit resulted in a tax burden exceeding the amount originally paid, the taxpayer incurred delinquent penalties and interest on the remaining amount owed. The revision removes the taxpayer's risk for attempting to discern where a litigated value may settle by eliminating the possibility of penalties and interest on the additional tax due.

Uncertain Times

Despite changes enacted in the 2019 Legislative Session, at least some of those reforms are on hold as the state and its communities respond to the coronavirus pandemic. Gov. Abbott's Mar. 13 disaster declaration allows cities, counties and special districts to use the old 8% threshold on revenue increases rather than the new 3.5% limit.

Further, the governor has the authority to change deadlines during a disaster. As of Mar. 19, Texas had suspended in-person Appraisal Review Board hearings and may extend that suspension into the normal administrative protest season.

Rapid developments may continue to disrupt the property tax assessment and appeal process in 2020. How the disaster will ultimately affect the 2020 property tax cycle remains to be seen, but the recent changes enacted in law will shape the property tax process in Texas for years to come.

For more detailed information on property tax law changes, please refer to the 2019 Texas Property Tax Code, additional resources on the Texas Comptroller's webpage, and consult with a property tax professional.

Rachel Duck, CMI, is a Director and Senior Property Tax Consultant at the Austin, Texas, law firm Popp Hutcheson PLLC. Popp Hutcheson devotes its practice to the representation of taxpayers in property tax matters and is the Texas member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC), the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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Nov
06

Retail Property Taxes Will Rise

​Unless assessors can recognize the challenges facing shopping centers, taxes will increase dramatically.

As retailers rise and fall in the age of Amazon, property taxes remain one of the retailer's largest operating expenses. That makes it critical to monitor assessments of retail properties and be ready to contest unfairly high taxable valuations.

Assessors – and property owners attempting to educate those assessors – must understand how the changes taking place in the retail sector affect property value. Assessors must adjust their models to reflect new market realities, and property owners or their representatives must be able to explain why previously held valuation assumptions could no longer be valid.

No going back

Changing consumer tastes have always required retailers to adapt in order to survive, but traditional retailers are facing a different kind of challenge today. The increasing role of e-commerce in overall sales reflects a fundamental change in consumer behavior that will not reverse course with the whims of fashion. The ability to shop online is resetting consumer expectations, and retailers are struggling to adapt and stay competitive.

This struggle is evident in store closings that in 2019 are outpacing closings from the prior year. In addition to the threat of e-commerce, some economists believe a recession is coming in 2020. Falling retail sales, rising assessed property values and changing consumer demographics could combine to accelerate store closings in the years to come.

With millennials and Generation Z mixing into the workforce and increasing the demand for online shopping, retailers and property owners are facing new challenges in catering to consumer expectations unique to these generations. Strategies range from adjusting store buildouts to completely changing the store footprint to fulfill online orders as retailers do what they can to compete with online sellers. In addition to these changes, many property owners are stepping away from traditional big box retailers and are instead looking to restaurants and entertainment venues to anchor shopping centers and drive customer traffic.

Restaurants and experiential retail

Across the nation, retail property owners are working to fill vacant spaces with tenants that will offer millennials and Generation Z an exciting and unique shopping experience. In doing so, these owners are attempting to "e-commerce proof" their centers by shifting from big box anchors to an experiential model. Some retailers catering to these two tech-savvy generations are using tenant improvement allowances to build out highly specialized spaces, while others focus on social media. Select retailers even offer discounts to shoppers who share photos of their store or products on platforms such as Instagram.

Retail developments that once contained 40% to 50% restaurants are now filling as much as 70% of their spaces with restaurant operators in an attempt to drive traffic. A rising threat to this strategy are food delivery services such as Grubhub, Uber Eats, and Door Dash, which are collaborating with major restaurants that have previously had no food delivery. Pizza chains and other food-delivery-based retailers losing market share must now re-think their strategy and even partner with these third parties to expand their customer base.

Home food delivery partnerships continue to evolve as well, with restaurant operators looking into cloud kitchen concepts. These allow restaurant operators to operate from industrial space, avoiding retail rents and the need to pay back above-market tenant improvement allowances. Once the cloud kitchen space is running, the operator can rely on third-party delivery services to get the product to the consumer. This is a growing risk to shopping centers that rely on a restaurant tenant base to draw customers.

Clicks and bricks

Physical retailers attempting to compete with Amazon's fast delivery have introduced buy online pick-up in store (BOPIS). Many sellers have found BOPIS difficult to implement due to expensive software that tracks live inventory and requires staff training. Essentially converting a retail-only property into a retail and warehouse hybrid, the method may require modifications to the real estate. This reclassification should be discussed with assessors, because retail space typically commands higher rental rates than warehouse space.

Grocery anchors have also begun to adopt the BOPIS model, and some are finding the logistics a challenge given their existing footprint. As a result, some stores are expanding into smaller, adjacent in-line suites to offer this service. Where this happens, a property owner that was once receiving all in-line rents may now collect reduced rents for these suites, given they are now part of the anchor space. In this scenario, it is important for the valuation to weigh the potential grocer expansion into these in-line suites and adjust as needed.

Assessors must understand the changes rapidly taking place for this product type and their implications for valuation metrics. Given millennials' and Gen Z's familiarly with the internet, e-commerce as a percentage of retail sales is expected to continue to rise.

As property owners increase tenant improvement allowances so retailers can keep up with changing consumer tastes, appraisal districts need to consider how above-market tenant improvement allowances affect the lease rate the tenant is responsible for paying. Assessors must analyze the rental rate to factor in these build out costs and, if needed, adjust rent over the least term to reflect the portion that is paying for more costly buildouts. Only then can the assessor conduct a proper rental analysis for the subject property.

Nuanced classification

In addition to thoroughly analyzing rental rates and vacancy risk, assessors must also consider retail classification. With restaurants stepping into the anchor role in many shopping centers, increased traction by cloud kitchens may pose a threat to these tenants' long-term strength. Struggling retailers attempting to implement BOPIS compound this uncertainty, particularly with a potential recession on the horizon. Assessors must consider these factors before selecting appropriate rental rates, capitalization rates and vacancy and collection loss inputs to calculate taxable value.
Kirk Garza is a Director and licensed Texas Property Tax Consultant with the Texas law firm Popp Hutcheson, PLLC, which focuses its practice on property tax disputes and is the Texas member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. He was assisted by Sam Auvermann and Krishtian Bazan, summer interns with the firm.
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