The Erath County Appraisal District has been sending out property appraisal notices. Many property owners are learning that their property values have been increased. As I begin my sixth summer as chair of the Appraisal Review Board, I expect to conduct hearings for those who disagree with how their property was reappraised.
Those who see their property values increased have a perfect right to contest those increases, especially since their tax bills may increase as well. Nothing is more American than tax protests—after all, one of the great battle cries of the American Revolution was “No taxation without representation!” But neither the ECAD nor the ARB can cut property values to cut tax bills. Those who seek tax relief should protest to those who actually set tax rates.
The key to potential effectiveness is to remember that neither the ECAD nor the ARB is a taxing authority. Neither can raise taxes, lower taxes, nor collect taxes. The real taxing authorities within Erath County are the elected governing boards, including the city councils, the ISD boards of trustees, the Erath County Commissioners Court, and the Middle Trinity Groundwater Conservation District’s Board of Directors. Only these boards have the power, within limits established by the state constitution and legislature, to raise, maintain, or lower your taxes. Granted, their decisions will be informed by the property value information developed by the ECAD, but the ECAD is required by state law to base its valuations on market values as of the first of the year; it has no discretion on this matter. On the other hand, the governing boards have far more discretion: They always have the last say on what to do with state-regulated ECAD data. Increased property values don’t automatically or necessarily lead to higher tax bills; the governing boards can always vote to cut tax rates enough to offset the increased valuations, if they so choose–and if you make them so choose. So how should you go about doing so?
The most important thing to do is to keep yourself as well informed about the ins and outs of local government finance as possible. Everyone has the rights, or should have the rights, to speak, to be heard, and to be taken seriously by our governing boards. But those who are taken the most seriously are those who are the best informed. So how do you go about becoming well-informed?
You can begin by following the budget deliberations of the governing boards. I can’t speak to the procedures of most of them, but I know, from my 14 years on the Stephenville City Council, that it has been open not only to citizen attendance at budget-related meetings, but to active citizen participation as well. Citizens have traditionally had the right and the power not only to witness the council’s budget deliberations, but to question and otherwise discuss tax and spending proposals with the city’s elected and appointed officials too. Restrictions created in response to the pandemic may limit your opportunities to do so this year, but you can still follow proceedings, if not in person, than on line. And of course you can always contact your council members to share your views and learn theirs as well.
If you want lower taxes, you can further increase your effectiveness if you remember that the governing boards set not only tax rates but spending levels too, and that the state requires that they must balance their budgets each year. In some circumstances, over the long run, natural economic growth may expand the tax bases, increase tax revenue, and allow for cuts in tax rates, but that is by no means guaranteed. Tax rate cuts may also decrease funds to finance programs. So you may want to tell the governing boards where you believe cuts, if necessary, should be made. Are we currently spending too much on police and fire protection? On sewers or roads? On parks and recreation?
And if you’re not satisfied with what your elected officials do about taxes and spending, you have the perfect right to vote them out of office. After all, they work for you, not the other way around.
So by all means, if you don’t like how your property was valued, exercise your right to protest. But if you’re doing so because you fear higher taxes, remember that the most effective protests are those made not to the ECAD or the ARB, which have no authority to set tax rates, but to those who actually do set the tax rates—the men and women you’ve elected to do so. They’re the ones you need to contact on taxes and spending.
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.