Showdown at appraisal district
Five "gunslingers" rode into Corpus Christi Monday, and while there was no actual bloodshed, when the five left, the Nueces County Appraisal Board knew they were serious about lowering property appraisals.
The Fearless Five were members of the Port Aransas City Council who had gone to the district's budget meeting and public hearing to protest property appraisal increases here in the past year. Included were Mayor Claude Brown and councilmen Keith McMullin, Charles Bujan, Bubba Jensen and Rick Pratt. Planning and zoning commissioner Betsy Churgai, who said she was appearing as a private citizen, also spoke to the board.
Brown called the special meeting because the council wanted the appraisal board to know they were speaking as an official body. Councilmen Keith Donley and Mike Hall were unable to attend.
City Secretary Esther Arzola, who has been with the city for 32 years, said she did not remember another occasion when a council meeting was convened at an out-of-town location for a similar purpose, although state law requires meeting notices to be posted when a council quorum will be together at any meeting. It's common when four or more members attend an event such as the Texas Municipal League to post notice of a special council meeting.
Verbal slaps at 2007 appraisals ranged from McMullin's quoting sales statistics to Brown's declaration that the property value increases are "nothing more than an act of organized crime."
McMullin, a Realtor, told the board that "the rise in appraisals is a travesty." He said over the past year, 60 properties had changed hands in Port Aransas, with appraisal increases being in the value of the land itself, not the improvements.
"I believe Port Aransas has been targeted with tax increases far above what is justified," Pratt said.
Jensen noted that Port Aransas High School had just graduated 41 seniors.
"Those graduates are leaving, knowing that they won't be able to move back home for a long time, if ever," he said.
Bujan said 60 percent of the houses in Port Aransas are second homes.
"That's where the (property sales) activity is occurring," he said. "(Appraisers) are hurting 40 percent of the population. They cannot afford the tax increases."
"We have lost a great deal of our population, (including) our workforce, volunteer firfi.ghters, law enforcement officers," Brown said. "Our restaurants continually maintain a 'help wanted' sign in front of their businesses (and) the hotels and condos have to import help from other cities to avoid being held hostage to being understaffed.
"The appraisals and taxes have grown so out of proportion to the pay scale that working people can no longer afford to live here," he said.
"I keep hearing the story about the economic value of the location of Port Aransas. That's great, if you're selling your home for six times more than it's worth. But it doesn't do much when it uproots a child's life from their school and their friends."
Churgai accused the appraisal district of skewing property appraisals in Port Aransas.
"Our town is unduly being singled out to support the rest of Nueces County," she said.
City Manager Michael Kovacs acted as the peacemaker of the delegation.
Last year, he reminded the board, Port Aransans saw a 30 percent increase in property appraisals.
"That set the whole town moving toward a tax revolt," he said.
He noted that the city has instituted the maximum homestead exemption that the law permits and that he and Brown had gone to Austin for conferences with the State Comptroller's staff to see what else could be done about appraisals.
State Sen. Chuy Hinohosa, D-Mission, introduced a bill in the legislature to raise the maximum homestead exemption to 30 percent, but that bill died in committee, Kovacs said.
However, he said, city officials realize that "a lot of what's driving the (appraisal) train is not at the local level."
Kovacs said among the moves the city is considering are
+ More talks with the State Comptroller 's office
+ Challenging residential classifications for appraisal purposes
+ Challenging the appraisal district 's jurisdiction
+ Challenging the appraisals themselves
"We don't want to cause that kind of chaos," he said. "We'd rather work on the staff level."
Kovacs said the city staff is "getting overwhelmed" with appraisal data from residents who are just now receiving their 2007 tax appraisals.
Appraisal board chairman John Sendejar noted that the board's agenda forbade it from discussing matters that aren't on the agenda.
"Obviously, any time an entity comes out in full force, we're sensitive to what they say," he said.
"We'll see if there's a way to resolve it."
Sendajar promised to get Chief Appraisar Ollie Grant Jr. to meet with Port Aransas representatives to talk about this year's appraisals.
It's likely, however, that he was remembering part of Bujan's presentation.
"We are in near revolt on (Mustang) Island," Bujan said.
"This is a serious, serious matter. We are not joking."