As reported in a previous article, property values in Runnels County have increased as much as 85% or more in the last 4 years. This year there were at least 795 protests filed regarding the valuation of properties. The chief appraiser for Runnels County is PaulScott Randolph who supervises 4 appraisers, Kerry Rieken, Abri Rieken, Amanda Vasquez and Amber Sanders. There is also a bookkeeper and a receptionist. The complaints and frustration regarding property valuations have been numerous and were only exacerbated at a town hall meeting that Ballinger City Manager Tommy Turney set up at the Ballinger Community Center on May 28th. Randolph was at the meeting as was the chairman of the Tax Appraisal District, Alvin Dunn. Many of the estimated 200 attendees walked out during the meeting because they felt that Randolph was not answering their questions. In several cases he refused to answer any questions citing laws restricting his discussing tax valuation privacy.
The relationship between the tax appraisal district and the taxpayers has not gotten any better since that town hall. Many have said that they were stonewalled or treated unfairly by Randolph and/or the appraisal protest board at the appraisal district, which hears all protests.
On June 11th at 9 a.m., approximately one week after the protest deadline had passed, the Tax Appraisal Board and Randolph met to discuss giving the appraisers raises. Members of the public attended the meeting, including Terilyn Bowman, Ballinger councilwoman Kristi Goetz, Ballinger councilman Jason Gore, KRUN radio general manager Jeff Smith and Ballinger city manager Tommy Turney. Most of them felt that giving raises at this time wasn’t the proper action, citing the 795 appraisal valuation protests and the deteriorating image of the chief appraiser’s office and the appraisal board. Appraisal board members at the meeting were Dunn, along with Joe Gerhart of Winters, Roy Brown and Gary Kemp. Sylvester Schwertner is also a member of the board but was not at the meeting.
Gerhart and others spoke in favor of the raises, even though the public, who the Tax Appraisal Board represents, spoke out against those raises citing the numerous discrepancies in recent property valuations. In the end the raises were approved without much consideration given to those who spoke against them. One board member felt that the raises were deserved because the appraisers have to undergo training and testing every year. Goetz pointed out that there are many professions that require annual training and testing, including real estate agents, nurses and pesticide/fungicide applicators among others. She pointed out that someone meeting the job requirements of their position does not automatically deserve a raise. The case for raises seemed weak considering that there are just over 10,000 people in the county and 795 protests represent almost 10% of the county residents. Many people in the county don’t own property and many other property owners do not live in the county. This number does not include the “informal” solutions. Randolph has said that many cases are solved informally, with tax payers and the office coming to an agreement without going to a protest hearing.
The tension has only heightened in the 6 weeks since the raises with numerous residents reporting threats made against them by Randolph and the appraisal board not giving their protests any consideration. On Tuesday, July 30th, Ballinger City Manager Tommy Turney spoke about the complaints and even brought up complaints that the city has, “County-wide valuations have gone up $63,350,000.00. The city valuations have gone up $16,000,000. With 795 protests representing almost 10% of the county, the appraisal board and chief appraiser know that they are going to get their money 90% of the time. They know that they can raise valuations and only 10% will protest. If they had gone out and actually looked at these properties they wouldn’t have all of these protests. Randolph isn’t approachable and the appraisal office is using Gestapo type tactics when dealing with the taxpayers. The state needs to look at what is going on there. We don’t want the people of Ballinger or other taxpayers in Runnels County feeling abused and pushed around by the appraiser’s office. And the appraisal board needs to represent the tax payers and not the state.”
One issue about the appraisal board regards their meeting at 9 a.m. on a Thursday. With them representing the taxpayers it would make sense that the meetings would be held at a time when the public can attend, particularly when it comes to budgets and pay increases. Having the meetings in the evenings at 6 p.m. or later would allow working taxpayers the opportunity to attend the meetings. A recent poll on the Runnels County Register Facebook page regarding meeting times received 48 votes. Of those votes, 3 were for keeping the meeting times as they currently are and 45 were for moving the meetings to an evening hour. I asked Randolph and Dunn about the prospect of moving the meetings to evenings and they said that wasn’t feasible because once the budget is set, there isn’t much to be said about it. I inquired about the possibility of having a biannual or annual meeting in the evening so that the board could explain any upcoming changes or other issues before appraisals are made.
One person who wish to not be identified contacted me and shared her experience; “My issue was with Mr. PaulScott Randolph. The board didn't allow much leeway for me either though during my protest, however the board was respectful to me personally. This was the first year to protest my property. I showed prepared for my protest on time with documents to support why I believed my property value was set high. Supporting documents included other homes with more square footage than mine with lessor property value by 55K. Please keep in mind I live in a "cookie cutter" neighborhood all homes are brick most built by the same builder and around the same time frame. However, Randolph rudely told me that he did not have to discuss those properties with me and that he had attached homes he believed resembled my property more accurately. The properties that Randolph attached were some of the nicest homes with acreage in Runnels County. (I could only wish I had those homes). After the protest I spoke with other neighbors who had protested as well, who like me had taken in other neighbors information and had their value reduced while comparing to other "cookie cutter" homes in the neighborhood. My biggest argument was my neighbor next door has almost 100 square feet than me and both of the other brick homes, however his market value was set at 85k while mine is at 140k. Randolph informed me again, "moving forth I do not have to discuss "______’s" property with you". Randolph had me so upset and after speaking to me like I was a pile of... lack of better wording "poop," I didn't even want to finish my protest. I just took my market value and went on. All I know to do is prepare to sell my home and move out of Runnels County because at these rates it will continue to go up I will not be able to afford my home. Other points I would like to point out that I "learned" during my protest was that Randolph informed me that he has more authority than the Game Warden and that is what allows him to come onto your property without permission.”
I asked Randolph about the assertion from several people that they were threatened with jail and/or fines if they spoke about their protest. Randolph said that it wasn’t that simple, “When someone comes in to protest, it’s open to the public. But if private information is to be shared, I can close the doors. It becomes a legal hearing at that time. Talking about it can result in a Class A misdemeanor which can be a fine and/or jail time.” I asked him if there was another option, “If I don’t tell someone that they can be charged with a misdemeanor and they say something in violation and get charged, I’ll get the blame.” Basically, it’s a danged if you do, danged if you don’t type deal for Randolph. I asked about comments regarding his “powers.” Randolph addressed the subject, “We can’t just come up and walk into someone’s home. We can’t do that. It’s not legal.”
Regardless of the issues, the perception of the tax office and appraisal board is that they do not listen to the taxpayers. Over 200 emails to the newspaper were basically the same; they complained about how Randolph talked to them; they complained about the appraisal board; the complained about the property valuations. Many of the emails went into detail but the people who spoke to the newspaper wanted to remain anonymous because they fear retaliation. The appraisal board appoints Randolph as the chief appraiser and if they don’t listen to the public then no one will listen. Their reluctance to speak publicly and attempt to educate people because the information is in the tax code isn’t helping matters. It’s true that they can’t speak about specific properties but there is more information about the system and valuations that can be given out. Citing a packet of papers or the tax code and not being willing to hold another town hall or public discussion is only hurting the perception of the Tax Appraisal Board and chief appraiser.
There will be a second article in the newspaper next week discussing the appraisal board, past issues and how someone is nominated and elected to the appraisal board. It’s not a simple system. There are 17 tax entities in Runnels County with only 5 people on the tax appraisal board. Some people on the board represent more than one entity while others represent only a single entity. That will be discussed in-depth and there will be more information from my interview of Dunn and Randolph. They were gracious enough to grant me about 2 ½ hours to ask questions and pursue information and shed some light on many of the issues.