There are few champions of property tax reform in this county as tireless as George Scott (and one of those would be Coach Don Hart). Compared to these two gentlemen, I am a mere dilettant. George was a member of HCAD’s executive staff, and since leaving in 2012, he has been relentless in his investigation and reporting of HCAD’s corruption. One of the targets of his criticism has been former HCAD Chief Appraiser Jim Robinson. Scott reports in his latest column of georgescottreports.com that recently Robinson was asked in front of a room of several hundred tax agents, attorneys, and others, what he thought of George Scott’s criticism of him and HCAD. Robinson confirmed that much of what Scott has reported has been valid and accurate.
Scott also reveals that Robinson had serious reservations about the management team working under him, the same management team that came into power after Robinson’s retirement, people like Sands Stiefer. In the months leading up to his retirement, he had been making sincere efforts at reform, but these efforts did not succeed.
The ballot proposal to raise $217 million by selling bonds for the purposes of redeveloping the Astrodome failed yesterday. Thank you to all of you who went out and voted “NO”. I had higher than average traffic to my site yesterday, and almost all of that was people who found my blog by searching for information on the plan and how to vote for it. I hope they found my post helpful in deciding which way to vote. The proposal would have raised property taxes for all of us, while only promising to break even in revenue.
The Dome is now almost certainly to be demolished soon. While this will cost about $30 million, it will save $2 to $3 million in upkeep a year after that.
I have been weighing the Astrodome redevelopment plan ballot initiative over in my mind, had trouble deciding, but after doing research and talking to people whom I respect, I have come to the conclusion that this plan is just throwing good money after bad, and we, the property owners of this county, are the ones who will have to pay more in taxes because of it, and that is why I have decided to voice my opposition to it on this blog.
I am a native Houstonian, and apart from my time away in college, have lived here my whole life. I grew up with the Astrodome as the most recognizable landmark of my hometown, I went to games and rodeos there, and I understand that it is sad to see such a symbol, such a site of tradition for our city, in such disuse and disrepair. On top of that, I am generally an historical preservationist. I feel we have lost so many great places, like the Music Hall and the Colosseum, wonderful examples of Art Deco, and I hate to see any historic structure torn down if it can be practically preserved. But let’s face it, the Astrodome was never an ideal venue. Jack of all trades is master of none, and its multipurpose design really made it ill-suited for any of the events scheduled there. Indoor games never had the epic feel of outdoor events. The architecture isn’t exactly beautiful, and was long-ago adulterated by ill-conceived modifications, some of which were desperate and ultimately unsuccessful attempts to keep the Oilers in Houston. The Astrodome as it stands today is a deteriorating shell of what it once was. It is selfish and wrong of us to want to hang onto it out of nostalgia, like pet owners who refuse to put a suffering pet out of its misery.
With emotional issues out of the way, one concern remains – because of the ill-conceived late 80s additions, and because of costs associated with allowing a mammoth structure to sit mostly idle on an expensive piece of real estate for over 10 years, Harris County has accrued as much as $32 million in debt. I say “as much as” because due to the complex structure of the debt, no one is sure exactly how much debt there is. I am not sure how much the land the Astrodome is on is worth, but between the debt and additional cost to demolish to dome before selling it, I think it is a fair guess that Harris County will be upside down on the sale. So the question is, should we revitalize the dome, invest more on top of the debt, in the hopes that this new investment will create a facility that will generate enough revenue to produce a reasonable ROI?
On top of all the current debt that will continue to be serviced, the initiative on the ballot will raise $217 million from bond sales, and that $217 million, plus interest, will be paid back by us, the property owners of this county, in increases on our property taxes every year for the next THIRTY YEARS. We, today’s taxpayers, will not see a return on our investment in this revitalization plan. What also concerns me is the way both the Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation (HCSCC) and the Harris County Commissioners have coyly avoided the issue of potential revenue streams for this plan. I found it nowhere in the 14 page presentation (careful, I had a lot of problems trying to load this) the HCSCB has provided to the Harris County Commissioners, or the public. Furthermore, I was disturbed by these comments by Ed Emmett:
The taxpayers of Harris County own a very unique asset called the Astrodome. And Yes, it costs money, and I’ve been badgered by some in the media who say well, show us the business model. Well, you don’t have a business model for a park. There are a lot of things that government does that provides an asset or a service to the taxpayers that doesn’t necessarily pay for itself.
The best that HCSCC has done is estimate that the new facility would break even. The facility is expected to spend $2.1 million in annual operating expenses, and make $4 million in operating revenue, making a modest yearly profit of $1.9 million, but HCSCC board chairman Edgar Colon and Reliant Park general manager Mark Miller acknowledge that $1.9 million would likely be spent on utilities or other operating expenses.
That means that the new complex would not be generating money to pay back the bonds issued to build it – the cost of paying back those bonds would fall back on us, the property owner-taxpayers of the county.
There have been other far less expensive revitalization plans offered that involve demolishing the Astrodome. Trying to do something with this existing, unwieldy structure is simply too expensive, yet too many in the Commisioners Court want to hold onto the Astrodome for nostalgic value. We need to bite the bullet, vote down this proposal, and tear down the dome immediately. Though the teardown itself would not be cheap, it would be far less expensive than the current proposal, and even if the county were to sit on the vacant lot a few more years to consider redevelopment proposals, a lot without an astrodome on it would save county taxpayers about $2 million a year in insurance, maintenance, utilities, and security, the same as the renovated facility’s alleged “profit” that will be immediately spent, and we don’t have to spend $217 million to get it.
Vote NO on Harris County Bond Election Proposition 2.
On June 21, 2012, at 8:00 AM, I had an ARB hearing. The appraiser’s last name was Louis Johnson. The appraiser had claimed that a comparable property I had highlighted was not in my neighborhood and thus not valid, even though a.) that property was included in the evidence packet HCAD provided me, and b.) that the owner and resident of that property serves with me on the board of our neighborhood’s homeowner’s association. Furthermore, as I determined later, that property was in my “neighborhood”, even by HCAD’s standards, both my property and the comparable were in the 7707 “Neighborhood”, with the “25004″ Neighborhood Group. Louis Johnson had completely lied.
Looking at the search engine terms used to find my site, many, many of them include “Hcad employee salaries” in the string. Therefore, I have created a new category of “HCAD Employee Salaries”, and am going to put this post in it in order to make the list very easy to find. Here is the list: HCAD 2013 Emps-Titles-Salaries – wo#13-3136
My property is a 1965 one-story single family residence. The bathrooms have original 1965 bathtub, toilet, cabinetry, countertops, and other fixtures. The kitchen has original cabinets. Some time prior to 2006, new flooring was placed in ~75% of the house, the kitchen was given a new countertop and new doors on the old cabinets (which I have since had to reinforce with oak plugs at the pulls and hinges due to poor quality materials. Other than that, no remodel has been done on the house, which still has inoperable 1970s-era intercom and security systems installed. Vinyl siding from 1987 is on ~75% of the exterior of the house that needs to be replaced. Old electrical outlets and light switches have to be replaced as they fail. On top of that, soon after purchasing the house I was required to replace the furnace due to a cracked heat exchanger, which is evidence that no HVAC or electrical work was done, making the condition of the house inconsistent with the work usually done on an “extensive remodel”. My tax agent, who is a realtor, licensed general contractor, and licensed property tax agent has testified under oath before ARB hearing that he has inspected my house and determined that it is not extensively remodeled, yet HCAD lists my house as “extensive remodel”, and this label grossly inflates my tax burden every year.
During my 2013 ARB hearing, the ARB panel and Fischer had agreed that the crux of the issue was whether or not my home is extensively remodeled, and my tax agent, after testifying to the information above, stated the “extensive remodel” label was obviously in error. The ARB panel head asked Joel Fischer, HCAD appraiser II and representative for HCAD how such a label could be placed. In sworn testimony Fischer said “When the extensive remodel label is applied, that is a judgment call of the appraiser who is at the property at the time.”
Fischer’s testimony misled the ARB into believing that 1.) an HCAD appraiser always visits a property when making an “extensive remodel” determination, and therefore 2.) an HCAD appraiser had visited my house to make the “extensive remodel” determination. However, an email dated August 6, 2013, which I have included with this letter, from Kelly Sherbert, Public Information Coordinator for HCAD, makes it clear that the “extensive remodel” determination was made remotely WITHOUT a visit to the property: “After reviewing your account, our records indicate the remodel note was added in 2007 by Shelly Summers, a Residential Valuation Analyst. We did not add a date for the remodel since we were not sure of the exact date. We were able to determine that the remodel occurred before the sale of the subject in 2006, per comments and photos from the online listing service used that noted the information about the updates. This method of gathering data on improvements is not uncommon due to the large volume of sales and our limited resources. Other methods of gathering property characteristic information may include but are not limited to aerial inspections, field inspections, permits, hearings, and questionnaires.”
Joel Fischer, as an HCAD appraiser, should very well know that “extensive remodel” determinations are often made through other means besides appraisers visiting properties, as Sherbert states above. Therefore, his statement was deliberately misleading as well as factually false.
On June 17, 2013, I had my formal property tax protest hearing, with Hector Bazaldua presiding as the head of the 3 person ARB panel. Bazaldua, et. al.’s violation of the manual and tax code relate to his comments on his reasoning for decision, regarding evidence presented by my property tax agent, and HCAD representative Joel Fischer’s lack of ability to present evidence, on whether or not my property is extensively remodeled.
Both Bazaldua and Fischer admitted that the key issue in the valuation of my property is whether or not it is extensively remodeled.
Fischer said on two separate occasions during his testimony that the crux of the issue was whether or not my property was extensively remodeled. First he said “well, that’s pretty much going to be the crux of the whole issue here is whether or not it’s an extensive remodel.” He later said towards the end of his testimony “and like I said, that [extensive remodel label] is going to be the crux of the issue, it is what is driving all HCAD’s data.”
Then in his deliberations, Bazaldua stated (addressing my agent) “everything you said is correct, everything is based on that extensive remodel driving the figures.”
Before deliberations, my agent had testified that the extensive remodel label was incorrect, that the property was not extensively remodeled. He went on to say “I am qualified as an expert witness in court as well as at HCAD. I have personally been inside this property, and I am here to represent that to you, in formal testimony, under oath, the property owner has done nothing more to this house than the condition he bought it in. The condition is clearly noted in the MLS in front of you, it was cosmetic in nature. It is obvious that they did not do extensive remodeling by virtue of the fact they had to give him back four thousand dollars for a cracked heat exchanger because they did not address major systemic issues, only cosmetics. The district does not have any evidence and has not put forth the nature of whoever did this [applied the extensive remodel label].”
At this point I will direct your attention to an email dated August 6, 2013, which I have included with this letter, from Kelly Sherbert, Public Information Coordinator for HCAD, in which she writes “After reviewing your account, our records indicate the remodel note was added in 2007 by Shelly Summers, a Residential Valuation Analyst. We did not add a date for the remodel since we were not sure of the exact date. We were able to determine that the remodel occurred before the sale of the subject in 2006, per comments and photos from the online listing service used that noted the information about the updates. This method of gathering data on improvements is not uncommon due to the large volume of sales and our limited resources. Other methods of gathering property characteristic information may include but are not limited to aerial inspections, field inspections, permits, hearings, and questionnaires.”
I would also like to point out that Fischer, during his testimony, stated “The MLS listing of the home when he bought it in 2006 isn’t going to help us very much as far as the condition of the home as of the first of January 2013.”
I provide the above information because, before we move on, it is important to note that the “extensive remodel” label was NOT based on a site visit, only on an HCAD employee reading an MLS listing written by a real estate agent using glossy language to try to sell a house. It is also important to note that HCAD Appraiser Joel Fischer has unwittingly admitted that this information HCAD used to determine the “extensive remodel” condition is not valid for determining the condition of my house at this time.
Continuing on, HCAD appraiser Fischer, after admitting that the crux of the case is whether or not the house is extensively remodeled, stated “When the extensive remodel label is applied, that is a judgement call of the appraiser who is at the property at that time. Certainly mistakes can be made, but I don’t have any evidence in front of me telling me that is incorrect.”
Bazaldua asked Fischer “So someone was out there to give it that extensive, somebody was there, when would that have happened?” and Fischer replied “I don’t know, is the easy sense of that, because…[he trailed off.]”
So, as you can see:
- All parties agreed that the main issue was whether or not the home is “Extensive remodeled”.
- HCAD’s 2007 reason for determining “extensive remodel” on my home was never based on strong evidence, and Joel Fischer has admitted it is pretty much irrelevant now.
- HCAD Appraiser Joel Fischer was unable to provide any evidence that my home was extensively remodeled, and admitted that he did not even know who or when that label was applied.
- My agent provided sworn expert testimony that he had personally been in the house, that in his expert opinion it was not extensively remodeled, and gave specific evidence, such as the cracked heat exchanger at the time of sale, that major systemic issues normally required in an extensive remodel, were not don at the time of sale. As Texas’s 2013 Appraisal Review Board Manual states: “Evidence may be documents, testimony, …Testimony is any oral statement from a witness.” My agent’s testimony clearly qualified as evidence per the 2013 Appraisal Review Board Manual
My agent’s testimony was evidence that the house was not extensively remodeled. HCAD Representative Joel Fischer could not and did not supply any evidence that the house was extensively remodeled, and even admitted that he could not provide information on when or how the “extensive remodel” label was applied. According to Texas Tax Code 41.43(a) “Except as provided by Subsection (d), in a protest authorized by Section 41.41(a)(1) or (2), the appraisal district has the burden of establishing the value of the property by a preponderance of the evidence presented at the hearing. If the district fails to meet that standard, the protest shall be determined in favor of the property owner.”
Since the “crux” of the issue, in Fischer’s own words, was whether or not the house is extensively remodeled, and Fischer did not provide any evidence that the house was extensively remodeled, Fischer had failed to meet his burden of proof, therefore, BY LAW Bazaldua and the other members of the panel had no choice but to find in favor of me.
However, Bazaldua et. al. ruled in favor of HCAD’s value, and in doing so, stated “It’s not been shown that that property is anything but extensively remodeled. I know you are giving me your best estimate, but I don’t have that to go on, your word.”
Because Joel Fischer had the burden of proof, even without my agent’s testimony the ARB panel was required BY LAW to find in my favor when the “extensive remodel” label was stated to be incorrect and Fischer could provide no evidence that it was. But because Bazaldua’s decision implicitly indicates, and his statement above about my agent’s “word” explicitly demonstrates, he and the other ARB members inappropriately disregarded evidence that was presented in the form of expert testimony.