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The Watchdog: Tax challenge accepted — and failed

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Dave Lieber, The Dallas Morning News

My wife is ticked at me.

She doesn't like it when I test a product or service as The Watchdog and it ends up hurting us. My latest mishap will cost our household hundreds of dollars. Frankly, it's embarrassing.

You want to hear what happened?

OK, you know I'm the self-proclaimed leader of the #EverybodyFileAProtest property tax campaign, right? I convinced hundreds if not thousands of homeowners to test the system and file a tax protest to try and lower their taxes. It worked. This year, in the four largest counties in Dallas-Fort Worth, an additional 40,000 businesses and homeowners filed protests, compared with last year.

The idea was to clog up the system so that appraisal districts would settle informally, either in person or online, with homeowners to avoid so many appeal hearings. That worked for some. Many more went to hearings and won.

We would show how unfair and random the system is. Homeowners learned that the Texas property tax process is like a magic trick. And we have no idea how government officials pull the rabbit (our tax bill) out of their hats.

I've tested every way to appeal. Years ago, I had great luck protesting online. I protested in a couple of hearings with a mixed record. Last year, as a test, I hired the largest property tax company in the state, O'Connor & Associates of Houston. I hired O'Connor because the company had been scolded by the Texas attorney general for its ethical failings. How bad or good was this company?

O'Connor's process didn't go smoothly, but in the end I saved some money and paid O'Connor half, around $300. I told the company founder that his service was impersonal and communication was poor.

This year, I intended to hire a small local company and hoped for a personal touch with excellent communication. Out of nowhere, it seemed, I received a letter from Jonathan Kutner, owner of Property Tax Protest in Dallas.

"Dave, are you open for a friendly wager? Last year, you used O'Connor & Associates to contest the taxable value of your home and received very poor communication. My firm is different. We're a boutique operating in Dallas, Tarrant, Denton and Collin counties.

"Last year in Tarrant County, for example, we filed 605 protests and had 275 reductions settled by negotiation. I was told by the district's negotiator that my 45 percent was among the highest percentage negotiated reductions to protest among all consultants.

"Here's the wager. I can do better for you than O'Connor did. If I win, you pay 1 percent of the market value reduction (like all my clients). If I lose, you pay nothing. We'll communicate with you. You will know the why's and wherefore's of your results. It's guaranteed."

I checked him out, and Kutner has been around awhile plying his trade. I didn't find complaints.

I also liked his publicity photo, which, turns out, was shot by The Dallas Morning News. He's on the phone. He looks like a man who can get things done, a man on the move. I signed an agreement on what turned out to be an appropriate day. April Fool's Day.

Ten days later, I received a confirmation letter. "We will file a protest," Kutner wrote.

Are you wondering how he did? Hint: My wife is ticked at me.

Why a grade of F?

I will skip to the very end of this story.

I never heard from Kutner again. Boutique? Communicate? Guaranteed?

I didn't call him because I wanted to see if he remembered me, recalled his wager and knew that whatever he did or didn't do would end up in the newspaper and on our webpage at DallasNews.com/Watchdog.

The list of what he did is short.

The list of what he didn't do? For starters, when I checked with the appraisal district, I learned he did file my protest as promised but he wasn't allowed to argue my case because he hadn't presented the proper paperwork to the district. I had no hearing, no reduction, no activity whatsoever.

"The hearing was set up, but you're listed as a 'do not appear' for 2017," an appraisal district official explained.

Can you believe this?

'I'm sorry'

This week, my colleague Marina Trahan Martinez and I met with Kutner at his preferred location, a Starbucks on Oak Lawn Avenue. I asked him to bring my file and any correspondence between us. He didn't.

I asked him why I never heard from him, what happened to my case, why he disappeared.

He was vague.

"I don't remember the specifics of what happened," he said. "I'm not perfect, but I'm not bad."

I told him he was the man with the phone in his ear in his photo, a man on the move. But here he had no move. His grade is "F."

"I apologize," he said. "If it didn't happen, it was a glitch that needs to be fixed. ... I'm sorry."

In hindsight

The thing is, I could have done this myself. I know plenty of people who protested in my appraisal district this year using the online process. They saved thousands in taxable value. One pal of mine did it in 10 minutes while I talked him through on the phone.

My protest was filed, but there was no follow-through. I missed the deadline, and it's too late for me. Our taxable value jumped $46,000!

Yeah, my wife is ticked at me.

Staff writer Marina Trahan Martinez contributed to this report.

ABOUT THIS COLUMN

The Watchdog Desk works for you to shine light on questionable practices in business and government. We welcome your story ideas and tips.

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Email: watchdog@dallasnews.com

Call: 214-977-2952

Write: Dave Lieber, P.O. Box 655237, Dallas, TX 75265