With only a few days to go before the May 31 property tax protest deadline, The Watchdog this week went to Wylie to hear pleas of help from homeowners to their elected officials.
"It's blowing me away," one woman told the Wylie City Council on Tuesday night. "My taxes are more than my house payment."
"Something needs to be done," another woman said.
"We the people are left paying a higher and higher tax bill," complained a third.
A dozen people spoke against higher property taxes. Many more in the audience cheered them. Neighbors organized the group to speak to the council. They invited The Watchdog.
Council members bragged that they had lowered their city tax rate for the past five years. Not their fault. It's the appraised value that goes up, Mayor Pro Tem Keith Stephens told the audience.
Everybody keeps playing this no-fault game. It's not my fault. It's not the appraisal district's fault that local governments use higher appraisals to collect more taxes. And it's not a government's fault if appraisals come in high. Who is accountable?
"The lack of accountability undermines the very legitimacy of the system," says Ron Wright, Tarrant County's tax collector.
I now see the Texas property tax system as a sucker's game. It took me a while to figure out, but the tax bill is the one bill you get each year that's truly negotiable. Like a sucker, I always paid without question.
Just because the appraised value and market value assigned to your property is printed on a colored sheet of paper doesn't make it real. It's only a start.
Did the county appraiser visit your property and check conditions? No! It's guesswork in a system where sale prices aren't even public information.
I'm so used to paying my bills on time without questioning the amount that I didn't understand that numbers from my appraisal district are pulled out of the air. My tax bill was always buried in my mortgage payments and, like many, I never paid attention.
We're all paying attention now, as taxes are their highest ever and growing fast.
What will happen next in the property tax movement sweeping Texas?
Nothing the Legislature will do in these final days of the session will lower your taxes this year — or probably next year either. The chances our area governments — and especially school districts — will cut their expenses to save us tax money are null and void, too.
All that's left for you is my "Everybody File a Tax Protest" campaign, which seeks to increase the number of protests this year before the May 31 deadline so the system is overwhelmed. Appraisal districts face tight deadlines to finish. With more protests, many would be more inclined to negotiate. Take advantage of that.
I unveiled this campaign a month ago, and Texans are telling me they want to test the system, too. It's your right to protest under law. It's actually expected of you.
In recent weeks, I hosted two Property Tax Town Halls in Arlington and Frisco. I've heard from a lot of Texans. Here are the most common questions I've heard.
How do I file a protest?
Go to your county appraisal district website and look up your property. Each county has a different way to protest. Questions? Call the appraisal district. Expect long hold times.
Watchdog, can you recommend a property tax consultant who can handle this for me?
I would direct you to the membership list of the Texas Association of Property Tax Professionals at www.taptp.org. Some charge a flat fee. My preferences are consultants who only take a cut if they win. When you do sign an agreement with one, put an ending date on the contract so it doesn't automatically carry over to next year.
I don't want to go to a hearing. Should I protest anyway?
The idea in my "Everybody File a Protest" campaign is that if enough people do it, offers and settlements will be made informally without hearings.
I'm a senior and my school taxes are frozen. Should I still protest?
Of course. City, hospital, college and county taxes usually aren't frozen.
How exactly should I protest?
You can find video tutorials at the Texas comptroller's website. One way is to show that your house needs major internal improvements and upgrades to get it to match the value assigned to it. Show how their numbers aren't right. Use color photos (not on your phone) to show major house flaws. After you file a protest before May 31, spend early June getting estimates for repairs showing how much the foundation, roof or countertop upgrades, to name a few fixes, would cost, lowering the value.
I want to join your campaign but don't have time to attend a hearing.
The Watchdog gets it. File the protest and you can withdraw at any time, but first see if you get an informal offer to lower your value. You have nothing to lose.
The crystal ball is clear: Legislators won't solve this. Appraisers aren't going to stop increasing values. Governments are not likely to cut their expenses.
All that's left is "Everybody File a Protest." And hey, we have our own flag. Colored green for money.
Staff writer Marina Trahan Martinez contributed to this report.
IN THE KNOW
Property tax information
—Taxes are due by next January, in most cases. But the protest deadline is May 31.
—Any homeowner or property owner can protest, even if their taxes did not go up.
—Seniors have their school taxes frozen, but in most cases their remaining property taxes are not.
—The appraisal district assigns two key numbers for a property each year. The taxable value is used to pay taxes. The market value is what the house might sell for. Local governments take the taxable value and multiply it by their own tax rate to come up with your annual tax bill.
Area appraisal districts
Dallas County: DallasCAD.org
Collin County: CollinCAD.org
Denton County: DentonCAD.com
Rockwall County: RockwallCAD.com
Tarrant County: TAD.org
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Write: Dave Lieber, P.O. Box 655237, Dallas, TX 75265