The rapid rise in property taxes across Texas prompted Paul Bettencourt and others in the state senate to hold a series of public hearings this spring that would give people a chance to share personal horror stories and build support for political action in next year's legislative session.
Precisely what sort of action is not clear. But at Monday's sixth hearing in Houston, Bettencourt's hometown, about 60 speakers left little doubt they expect serious measures to rein in huge, de facto tax increases and the appraisal districts that are feeding them through their property evaluations.
With Bettencourt, they were preaching to the choir,
"We've got to keep people from bleeding to death," said Bettencourt, a Republican chair of the Senate Select Committee on Property Tax Reform and Relief. "This is unsustainable."
Much of the ire Monday was directed at the appraisers. Speaker after speaker told the nine senators seated on a raised platform in a University of Houston Student Center ballroom that evaluations of their homes or commercial buildings had skyrocketed. And most complained that attempts to convince the districts that the figures were much higher than true market value fell on deaf ears.
"Property taxes represent 40 percent of our operating costs, so it's a huge, huge deal," said Stacy Hunt, executive director of Greystar, an apartment management company, citing a recent evaluation increase of 26 percent.
In a hot rental market, some of the increased property taxes caused by high evaluations can be passed on to renters, Hunt said. But when the market turns softer, the cost directly hits the bottom line.
"We can't get the appraisal district to work with us on an equitable basis," he said. "We can't get them to recognize what is really going on in the marketplace."
Homeowners from the small town of Weston Lakes in Fort Bend County showed up en masse to voice similar complaints about their appraisal district. They repeatedly said the evaluations were excessive and that any attempt to dispute the value set by the district was met with boilerplate denials.
"The Fort Bend appraisal district is just off the tracks," said Weston Lakes resident Jerry Mosbacher. "There is no way for a normal citizen to even understand what they put up (as evidence). You need to level the playing field."
'System is rigged'
The committee had heard such complaints before, from the Panhandle to the Rio Grande Valley, but it did not seem to matter. Many took turns commiserating with those describing their woes or those of property owners they represented, and Bettencourt promised to offer some assistance to those who had specific complaints, such as the Weston Lakes residents.
"The tax rates have got to come down," Bettencourt said. "There is no room for that Hoover vacuum cleaner to keep going on sucking up money. There's this dodge from the city governments - 'we're not raising taxes' - but the government is not telling people the truth. The taxpayer knows the system is rigged against them."
While Texas rates among the lowest 10 states in overall tax burden, thanks in part to no income tax, the recent housing boom and stronger economy have led to zooming evaluations. The ultimate payoff of a higher evaluation means nothing until the house is sold, and for many retirees or those living on modest incomes, even relatively small increases can have big impact, Bettencourt said.
"We are being taxed out of our homes," said Cheryl Stalinsky, a onetime economic development promoter for Fulshear who, ironically, at 72 is having to deal with the consequences of a booming regional economy. "All we have to look forward to is saving for the next tax bill."
Commercial property owners are being squeezed just as bad, said Tammy Betancourt, no relation to the senator, who is the CEO of the Houston Building Owners and Managers Association.
"This is a significant burden on our buildings," Betancourt said. The property tax as a percentage of operating expenses was 20 percent on Houston commercial real estate. Now it is more than 50 percent."
Her almost-namesake, the state senator, noted that Houston's civic coffers have been enriched by 29 percent since 2012, while Harris County's tax levy has produced a 43 percent windfall because of the evaluations. Bettencourt said the Legislature should act in 2017 to place tighter restrictions on how much taxing jurisdictions can receive because of higher property values.
"I have seen an incredible depth of passion about property tax issues in every part of the state," Bettencourt said. "Even if the values are substantiated, it is still an astonishing number, how much it has gone up. Taxpayers can't keep paying more."
Calls for limits
Even the taxman agrees. Harris County Tax Assessor Collector Mike Sullivan, a former Houston city council member, said he has received quite an education in his new job. He, too, called for greater limits on how much government can benefit from higher values.
"The truth is a lot of people are faced with tax bills they can't really afford," Sullivan said.
Sullivan said he favored lowering the evaluations on homes damaged by recent flooding.