Election for new appraisal board positions could cost district more than $300,000

dfwnewsa | January 12, 2024 | 1 | Fort Worth , Fort Worth News

Election for new appraisal board positions could cost district more than 0,000

Joe Don Bobbitt, the Tarrant Appraisal District’s new chief appraiser, speaks at the Dec. 21, 2023, board meeting. (Sandra Sadek | Fort Worth Report)
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For the first time in Tarrant County history, voters will have the chance to elect three members of the county’s appraisal district board of directors. 

Traditionally, members of the board are selected by area taxing authorities, who assign votes to candidates. The Tarrant Appraisal District board currently has five voting members, and one non-voting member in the tax assessor-collector. 

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But when Texas voters approved a constitutional amendment in November to lower property taxes, they also approved some fine print expanding the appraisal boards of large counties and mandating countywide elections for the new seats. In Tarrant County, three new members authorized by the amendment will be selected in a May countywide election. In addition, the tax assessor-collector will become a voting member of the board. 

In a Jan. 12 meeting, current appraisal district board members described the election as an unfunded mandate. The constitutional amendment did not provide any funding mechanism for the May election, meaning that its cost will fall squarely on the appraisal district’s shoulders.

The Tarrant County Elections Office estimates the election will cost the appraisal district about $300,000, though an exact cost won’t be calculated until most of the work on the March primary election is completed. 

“It was a shock to me that we actually had to pay for the election,” board member Vince Puente Sr. said. 

Not everyone is convinced the board change is a good one. Tax assessor-collector Wendy Burgess described the change as putting “politics back into the appraisal system.”

She referenced the 1979 legislation that created the central appraisal district system counties use today, spearheaded by former Texas Rep. Wayne Peveto, D-Orange. That legislation separated appraisals from tax collection, and was designed to take political leanings out of appraisal considerations. 

Board member Rich DeOtte said that while the Peveto legislation changed things, it never took politics out of the appraisal process entirely. Instead, he said, it’s just changed forms. 

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Incoming chief appraiser Joe Don Bobbitt, who previously served as chief appraiser for McLennan County, told the Fort Worth Report it’s always good to get more public opinion in the appraisal process. He acknowledged the benefit of allowing residents direct input, as opposed to the current system, which gives votes to taxing entities. 

However, Bobbitt wished the legislature had waited until November for the elections, instead of throwing a wrench in the appraisal district’s approved 2024 budget. 

He has also heard concerns from people in the appraisal industry that the elected positions will bring people with political agendas onto the board. The board itself has no power over property tax rates or appraisals, he said, which limits its ability to affect political change. 

“It’s mainly hiring, firing me, setting the budget, and overall policies,” Bobbitt said of the board’s responsibilities. With a nine-member board, he continued, the chance of political meddling going anywhere is mitigated. 

How to file as an appraisal district board candidate

The filing period for appraisal board candidates begins Jan. 17 and ends Feb. 16. Candidates must file with the Tarrant County Judge’s office. After this election cycle, future appraisal board elections will be held in November. 

Candidates must run as independents, without political party designations. General eligibility requirements apply, with some appraisal district specifics. Residents are ineligible if they:

Own property with delinquent taxes that have been owed for more than 60 days.

Have appraised property for compensation in the last three years.

Have represented property owners in proceedings with the appraisal district in the last three years.

Have served five terms on the board of directors.

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Have a substantial business interest in a contract with the appraisal district or a taxing unit that participates in the appraisal district, if the contract relates to the performance of an activity governed by Title 1 of the Tax Code.

Have been an employee of the appraisal district in the past three years.

Are related within the second degree, by blood or marriage, to a person who appraises property for money or represents property owners in proceedings with the appraisal district.

 In addition, candidates must have lived in the county for two years preceding them taking office. There is a $400 filing fee; alternatively, candidates can turn in a petition with at least 500 signatures.

Arlington school board violated law in TAD election

The arrival of three new members to the appraisal district board in January was marred by a mistake in the election process itself, the board acknowledged during its meeting. 

Arlington ISD, one of the taxing entities with voting power in the appraisal district election, allocated its votes to candidates after the legal deadline, board member Rich DeOtte said. State property tax code requires larger taxing entities, which are entitled to cast 5% or more of the total votes, to allocate their votes at the first or second open meeting after the chief appraiser sends out a ballot.

“What was happening years ago, really probably all the time, was that some of the larger entities would just wait till the end and then they would just pick the whole board,” he said. “And it really, really put an unfair advantage to some entities and a severe disadvantage for the smaller entities.” 

DeOtte described the AISD vote as an “unfortunate situation.” The district’s ongoing search for a superintendent distracted it from the deadline, he said, an understandable error given the importance of the superintendent position. AISD did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication. 

The votes were accepted on the advice of legal counsel, advice that the appraisal board now disagrees with. However, DeOtte said withholding the votes allocated by the school district would not have changed the outcome.

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Board members unanimously approved a resolution reaffirming the requirement for larger taxing entities to get their votes in earlier in order to be counted. The resolution wasn’t about condemning anyone in particular, he said, but about making sure the law is followed in the future.

“So this is really just about addressing what might be viewed as a precedent,” he said. “The larger entities have got to follow the rules.”

New board chair, secretary elected

Board members elected Puente, Sr. as the new chair, and Gloria Peña as the new secretary for 2024. 

Puente was first appointed to the board in 2023 after the recall of former board chair Kathryn Wilemon. He is the co-owner and president of marketing and sales for Southwest Office Systems Inc. He served as County Judge Tim O’Hare’s campaign treasurer during his 2022 election campaign. 

Peña is a former Arlington ISD school board member and president. 

Several residents who came to the Jan. 12 meeting had suggested board member Gary Losada as chair. A petition, signed by mayors from Crowley, Blue Mound, Lakeside, Burleson, Saginaw, Everman, River Oaks, Bedford, Watauga, Harlmon, Colleyville, Hasket and Kennedale, also called for Losada as chair. A former appraisal district board member, Losada was elected back onto the board in 2023. 

Ultimately, board members declined to nominate Losada as chair and instead nominated him for secretary. He quickly declined the position, leading to the eventual nomination and approval of Peña. 

At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here. Emily Wolf is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at emily.wolf@fortworthreport.org or @_wolfemily

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