Dysfunctional. Inequitable. Absurd.
Texas relies heavily on property taxes to fund schools, police and fire departments, local health districts and other essential services. But when it’s time to calculate the property values that will be used in those tax bills, Texas law puts appraisal districts in an impossible bind. Appraisers must determine the market value of each tract — the price it would likely fetch if the owner put it up for sale — without having access to actual property sales data in that community.
Texas is one of about a dozen states that do not require public disclosure of property sales prices, leaving appraisers to scramble for other sources of data to do their jobs.
This long-running problem gained new urgency in recent months as the Austin Board of Realtors denied access to a trove of home sales data sought by the Travis Central Appraisal District. In previous years, the appraisal district cobbled together information for about 98% of the home sales; now the office has data on only 15% of the sales, the Statesman’s Shonda Novak reported.
The fallout has been unsettling: Chief appraiser Marya Crigler announced her office won’t be able to update residential property values this year, which could cut off millions of dollars in additional tax revenue that area school districts were expecting.
Days later, Crigler made the kind of plea no government official should have to make: She begged members of the public to offer up the basic information — sales data — her office needs to do its job.
This may look like a local spat between the Travis Central Appraisal District and the Austin Board of Realtors. But the real culprit here is the Legislature, which for years has ignored the need to protect taxpayers by making property sales data public.
The cost of this lack of transparency has been well documented. Several studies have found the owners of low- to moderately-priced homes end up shouldering a disproportionate share of the tax burden when prices aren’t publicly disclosed.
Most appraisers can scrape together enough information from the plentiful pool of home sales to properly value homes, but they struggle to get data on commercial properties and high-end home sales, leading to many of those properties being undervalued and not paying their fair share of taxes.
This approach is also inefficient.
Appraisal districts are inundated each year with tens of thousands of appeals, because property owners aren’t confident their land is valued properly. Sometimes those challenges produce the very information appraisers needed on the front end.
Requiring public disclosure of property sales prices was recommended in 2005 by the Legislative Budget Board, in 2007 by then-Gov. Rick Perry’s Task Force on Appraisal Reform, in 2013 by this editorial board and countless times by other good-government advocates.
Yet in numerous legislative sessions, under pressure from powerful real estate interests, bills to do this very thing have died somewhere in committee.
No one relishes paying taxes. Recognizing the need to pay for our communities’ needs, however, we should all want a system geared toward accuracy and equity.
Lawmakers should require disclosure of property sales information so appraisers can do their jobs, and taxpayers can be confident everyone is paying their fair share.