Harker Heights resident Randy Schoel has no problem paying taxes. All he wants is a fair and equitable property appraisal.
That, he said, did not happen this year.
Schoel and his wife, Cindy, own Educational Outfitters — a store at 400 E. Central Texas Expressway in Harker Heights — that sells educational materials and supplies to teachers.
Their property value was appraised at $872,690, according to the Tax Appraisal District of Bell County. That is a 9 percent increase — or about $73,252 higher than his 2019 appraisal.
Schoel decided to protest the appraisal. He told the Tax Appraisal District he wanted its evidence for increasing his property’s value. Under state law, a property owner must get those documents at least 14 days prior to a scheduled protest hearing.
“I also proved to them that the evidence was provided to us roughly 48 hours before the hearing,” Schoel said.
Despite that, the proposed appraisal was approved. Schoel lost that battle, but now he’s trying to ensure no other taxpayer goes through that again.
He turned to state Rep. Hugh Shine, R-Temple, who has pushed for a more transparent property tax system since returning to the Texas Legislature in 2017.
“We’re not the only folks this has happened to — we just happen to be the first to report it to a legislator,” Schoel said.
‘Not isolated instances’
Shine wrote a letter to the appraisal district about it not providing the evidence taxpayers are owed within the statutorily established timeframe.
The Temple legislator pointed to the evidence law and another statute that states if the documentation is not provided within 14 days, the appraisal district cannot present its evidence.
“My constituents inform me that the district is not following those statues,” Shine said. “I reached out to Chief Appraiser Billy White on July 22 to discuss his statement that he and his legal counsel did not see (that section of the) tax code … as binding upon them, nor did they feel that the statute prevented them from introducing their evidence.”
The lawmaker added, “His interpretation and response is in conflict with the statute, which allows no room for debate nor does it need a court ruling as stated by the (Appraisal Review Board) during a review hearing.”
In a follow-up letter, Shine told the district’s board of directors Schoel is most likely not the sole Bell County property owner affected. He said commercial property owners, homeowners and tax consultants have called him saying they’ve encountered this issue.
“I must emphasize this is happening on a large scale,” Shine said. “These are not isolated instances involving only a few taxpayers. My discussions lead me to believe that thousands of taxpayers in Bell County have been denied this procedural right.”
Allegations false, district’s attorney says
Matthew Tepper, attorney for the appraisal district, pushed back on Shine’s assertion.
“The two allegations made in Rep. Shine’s letters — including the one that was just sent here today — that this is an ongoing pattern or practice of the Tax Appraisal District of Bell County to withhold evidence, to hide evidence, to not give property owners an adequate opportunity to review the documentation that the appraisal district is going to use, is false,” Tepper said.
An overwhelming majority of property owners, the lawyer said, who requested the evidence got it more than 14 days ahead of their scheduled protest hearing.
More than 18,700 protests were filed this year, the chief appraiser previously said. Of those, more than 1,700 residents filed a protest individually, Tepper said. And of that, 38 homeowners did not receive their evidence packet 14 days before their scheduled Appraisal Review Board hearing.
“That is certainly not a pattern or a practice or a procedure of keeping evidence from property owners,” Tepper said. “If you missed 38 out of 1,700 protests, that is pretty good. Obviously, the appraisal district strives for missing zero. It’s a bad situation anytime that we don’t meet the 14-day deadline.”
The attorney also highlighted that the appraisal district processed protests under a truncated timeline caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. About 2,000 residents are still protesting their proposed property values.
The district’s board of directors plans to issue a letter in response to Shine later this month.
Howard “Scot” Arey — a Tax Appraisal District board member appointed by the Bell County Commissioners Court — has been through this personally.
“I was one of the 38 people who didn’t get my evidence packet in 14 days,” he said.
As Arey tried to protest one of his properties last year, he said the Appraisal Review Board told him they can review the appraisal district’s evidence for his land value at the hearing. The ARB told Arey they could postpone the meeting, he said.
“Quite honestly, under the law, I don’t see where he had an ability to postpone it — but it was postponed nonetheless,” Arey said. “It was probably good because there were real issues.”
Arey pointed out the Legislature has set out to protect property owners with all of these laws.
“In one of the ways they do this is a requirement for a 14-day production of evidence,” the board member said. “So when we don’t meet that, I can see why that would be frustrating because there is no time to prepare.”
‘Not being transparent’
Shine — who is running unopposed in the Nov. 3 election and is all but certain to secure another two-year term as a lawmaker — plans to draft legislation to give taxpayers more security should they find themselves in a similar situation.
“It is incidents like these that give rise to proposed legislation, such as (House Bill) 1745 presented by Rep. Charlie Geren last session, that allows taxpayers to bring suit to recover attorney’s fees when appraisal districts and appraisal review boards refuse to follow procedural requirements,” Shine said. “I intend to introduce similar legislation in the 87th Legislative Session.”
Schoel said he plans to help Shine as he drafts a bill for the upcoming Legislature in 2021.
Because of Schoel’s encounter with the Appraisal Review Board and the appraisal district, others in Bell County have become aware of this potential legal issue.
Thomas Baird — a Temple lawyer who helped found the law firm Baird, Crews, Schiller & Whitaker, P.C. — informed local business owners and residents about this issue after talking to Shine.
Baird characterized the Tax Appraisal District of Bell County as possibly being the only tax appraisal district in the state that has not provided its evidence of how it set a proposed value to property owners within the legal timeframe.
“Based upon my personal experience and the experience of many of my clients, there is a definite feeling that the appraisal district is not being transparent and not providing good customer service to the taxpayers of Bell County,” Baird said. “It almost seems as if the appraisal district is going out of its way to be uncooperative and confrontational.”