August 18, 2017

Appraising the Situation

Dr. Malcolm Cross

In Erath County and throughout Texas county appraisal districts are sending out property appraisal notices.  Many recipients are upset because they’re being told that their appraised property values are going up.  They believe that this means their property taxes will increase and they want to know what to do about that.

Property owners can protest the appraisal increases.  As the head of the county Appraisal Review Board, I expect to help conduct many hearings in which property owners debate appraisers over whether the new valuations are fair and accurate.  It’s impossible to predict in advance how any single case will be decided.  But all hearings must and will be conducted in accordance with state law.  The proceedings, the deliberations, and the decisions must and will all be public.  And if a property owner dislikes the ARB’s ruling, he can appeal, seeking binding arbitration or a definitive ruling in court. 

But taxpayers have more power, if they choose to use it.

First, they must understand that while the CAD appraises property, it does not set tax rates.  That is done by the taxing entities within Erath County—the county itself, as well as Stephenville and Dublin, the ISDs, etc.  It’s wrong to say the CAD is uninvolved—after all, it does supply much of the information on which the taxing authorities base their decisions.  But it is the democratically elected governing boards, and only them, which can raise, lower, or maintain tax rates.

Second, prospective tax cutting activists should lobby the elected governing boards to lower tax rates enough to actually cut taxes.  If one’s property valuation increases by, say, 10%, the governing board—a city council, a school board, whatever—can vote to not change the rate at all, and still collect 10% more in taxes.  It can even cut the rate slightly and still reap more taxes if the rate cut is smaller than the increase in property values.  So activists must insist that the tax rate cut be great enough to prevent actual taxes to increase.  And, of course, activists have a perfect right to insist on even greater rate cuts as well.

Third, activists should, to the extent practicable, improve their credibility by insisting not only on tax cuts but on spending cuts as well.  The most important limit on the willingness and ability of a city council or some other local governing board to cut taxes is the state-imposed legal requirement that local governments balance their budgets.  Income from taxes and users fees must at least be great enough to cover the costs of government.  Therefore, activists must go to the sessions of governing boards wherein the issues of taxes, spending, and budgeting are debated and decided.  Those who attend these meetings cannot themselves vote, but at city council meetings, at least, they can speak and participate in the debates.  Those who show they want to cut spending, and who can help point out where spending can be cut, are far more likely to be effective than those who want tax cuts only, without demonstrating knowledge of the fact that local governments can’t cut taxes so much that they fail to raise enough money to cover expenditures.

Fourth, activists must recognize that should their efforts at persuasion fail, they can always go to the ballot box and vote out those elected officials who don’t cooperate.  Whether new council members elected by exploiting voter anger over rising taxes will actually lower taxes, and, if so, by how much, is questionable.  The election of 2014 rejected me and other supporters of the infamous 2013 one-cent tax increase, but our replacements haven’t yet gotten around to lowering the tax rate to pre-2013 levels.  But voting for council members whom activists think share and will implement their views if elected may sometimes work anyway.  It wouldn’t hurt to try.

Fifth, those who seek, through political activism, to cut taxes should recognize that there may be others who want higher taxes to support more spending at the local level.  Their right to work peacefully within the system to advance their views must be respected too.  Even if not everyone can win, everyone at least has the right to try.

Protesting taxes is a tradition older than America itself.  Debating tax-related issues vigorously but peacefully, and settling disputes in accordance with the law but with democratic oversight, will help keep America exceptional and great.

Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present).  He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014.  He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.

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