Second of two parts
Many moons ago, I told you I was going to hire a property tax consultant to fight to lower my tax bill. The reason? People asked me if they should hire one, and I didn’t know the answer.
So I paid for this experiment out of my own pocket, not knowing what would happen or how much it would cost. Even worse, I decided to hire the biggest tax consulting company in the state, one that got in trouble with the attorney general and had to pay a lot of money to get out of trouble.
I was stepping in it on purpose to learn about this world so I could share with you.
After several years of handling my own protests, I had run out of ideas.
And probably, my house is worth a lot more than the appraisal district says anyway. I had nothing to go on.
The process was an emotional ride because of errors by both my appraisal district and my tax consultant. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that The Watchdog received personal apologies from both the head of the appraisal district and Patrick O’Connor, owner of O’Connor & Associates, the Houston-based company I hired. They both messed up along the way. Both knew I would be telling you about it.
What happened showed me that the Texas property tax system that’s based on utter fairness is, well, anything but. Problems stem from the rule that — ridiculously and backwardly — sales prices are kept secret. The system is based on guesswork by everybody.
O’Connor officials didn’t make it easy to hire them. I called and emailed, kept at it until somebody at the company realized I was a customer willing, as per their agreement, to pay them no upfront fee but half of whatever they saved me.
When you’re one of O’Connor’s astounding 185,000 customers across Texas, it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle. Even though the company has 130 U.S. workers and 400 more in India, communication is impersonal, through email and digital filings. Seems untouched by human hands.
But that was small beans. By early July, I was impatient that I hadn’t heard from O’Connor about a protest hearing and alarmed that no information appeared on the Tarrant Appraisal District website. So I went to the appraisal office to check. (Note that the point of hiring a property tax expert is so you don’t have to go downtown to check.)
An employee looked up my house. He found that my hearing was scheduled for the day before, but O’Connor had mysteriously withdrawn my protest without a fight. My taxes would stay the same. I flipped.
I checked with a supervisor who said no, wait a minute, we, the appraisal district, made the error, not O’Connor. TAD accidentally withdrew my protest and other O’Connor protests in confusion caused by the company’s high volume. I flipped again.
Everybody was canceling on me, with no chance for a protest.
I called Chief Appraiser Jeff Law, who presides atop a most chaotic operation. A one-crisis-after-another appraisal district, often caused by the same excuse, year after year, “software problems.”
The latest crisis? The appraisal district’s spooky software gets blamed for another big error: $12 million must be refunded to taxpayers who overpaid. Cities and school districts are the ones flipping out.
The chief appraiser shares good news. On my property, there was no hearing. O’Connor came in with a big batch of accounts and won me a 3.6 percent tax cut, shaving $442 from my annual bill. Better than I could have done.
My protest, he said, was handled in what’s called an “informal hearing” — official talk for a conversation.
Later the chief appraiser emailed more: “The reduction of your property’s value was done through negotiations. The O’Connor firm did not provide any physical evidence to us concerning your property. A conversation between both parties led to review of data in TAD’s possession which led to a 2016 value adjustment.”
I called Patrick O’Connor. Told him I mystery-shopped his company. Gave him his grades: ‘A’ for results; ‘C’ for communication.
His firm didn’t tell me my protest results for more than a month. O’Connor apologized and said what the appraisal district told me. Data error.
In my county, I was one of 7,500 customers hired by O’Connor. Of those, 62 percent got our taxes reduced. Tarrant still has 300 more hearings to go because — no surprise — TAD is behind. A software thing.
In Denton County, O’Connor earned wins for more than half of its 2,900 clients. Same for Collin County, where the firm says it won 49 percent of the time for 4,000 customers.
Not so good in Dallas, where only 19 percent of his 7,600 clients won. Dallas doesn’t do O’Connor very well.
O’Connor discussed his formulas, how he shaves dollars off square-footage totals. He showed me 25 pages of Lieber background material, including my paperwork, and explained how his thousands of clients get listed in a spreadsheet, all bundled together and presented to my appraisal district.
That’s the way slow-moving TAD likes it (my words, not his). Other counties such as Dallas, he says, want to have a conversation about each property individually. Not so in Tarrant, where it’s bundled.
I see it like this. The spreadsheet is like a magic wand. O’Connor waves it and more than half of his runners win gold. It’s like you get passed through on a special TSA PreCheck line for protesting property owners.
With a rush to meet deadlines, time-consuming hearings can be waved off in quick settlements.
Chief Appraiser Law says that if he can avoid hearings, “it puts me ahead.”
O’Connor says, “If an appraisal district is late, it causes stress to the [government] entities. So appraisal districts have incentive to settle protests sooner than later to certify the tax rolls.”
In a system that’s supposed to be balanced, a tax consultant’s customer may gain an advantage.
Is that fair to you, who may not have hired a consultant and must pay more for the same public services?
Yes, it’s a system based on a false sense of fairness. But it’s also a bumbling one.
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Write: Dave Lieber, P.O. Box 655237, Dallas, TX 75265