By David Ball
Beaumont attorney Brent Coon said it was appropriate for him to host a press conference at his law office on April 15, the traditional tax day.
Coon said the basis of the class action lawsuit is their client, Elaine Henderson, and those like her , 8,000 of them, who own a 1.5 story home and have had their home values arbitrarily increased across the county.
Coon said Henderson’s home increased more than $40,000 in a single year and she’s past the point of a formal protest to the Jefferson County Appraisal District.
“This similar mechanism was applied wholesale to 8,000 others,” he said. “We hoped to engage in an informal process with the Jefferson County Appraisal District Board of Directors. The next level is court.”
The key witness in the proceedings is Angela Bellard, chief appraiser for the JCAD. Coon said Bellard exercises much control and authority over the JCAD and the board merely rubber-stamps and puts her program into place.
Property taxes are local taxes that provide the largest source of money local governments use to pay for schools, streets, roads, police, fire protection and many other services, according to the JCAD website. State law establishes the process followed by local officials in determining the value for property, ensuring that values are equal and uniform, setting tax rates and collecting taxes. The Texas Constitution sets out some basic rules for property tax, including the following:
Taxation must be equal and uniform
Generally, all property is taxable at its market value
Taxpayers must be given notice of an estimate of taxes they owe
“Last year there was a change (in the way appraisals are done). You have a rookie new chief appraiser and she significantly increased them across the board. There’s some questions about her prior experience and political pressure on her,” he said.
Coon said there has also been some “push-back” from JCAD employees. He classified them as whistleblowers.
Thirdly, there are some questions, according to Coon, about Mass Market Analysis the JCAD is to follow. He explained Mass Market Analysis as home sales from the prior year matched to current appraisal value.
For instance, a house is worth $100,000, but sold for $90,000 on the open market. The owner missed the mark by $10,000.
The JCAD website defines it as the market approach most often used and simply asks, “What are properties similar to this property selling for?” The value of one’s home is an estimate of the price their home would sell for on January 1. The Appraisal District compares their home to similar homes that have sold recently and determines their home’s value.
“They are only appraised by drive-bys and resales,” Coon said. “You don’t know what you’re appealing.”
Bellard ordered employees to take properties with a lower value off the rolls and keep the property appraised at a higher rate, according to Coon.
He said the vast majority of taxpayers don’t complain or protest their appraisals because it cost so much to contest.
“This adds up to million and million of dollars,” he said. “She fired at least one employee (for disclosure). In a deposition another employee was threatened to be fired and they had to sign a letter. There’s questions about her temperament and the professionalism in the way she does her job.”
He added it is also a matter of transparency, accountability, and oversight of the office.
Coon said the JCAD used pejorative terms too for certain portions of the community, such as “The Hood.” He questioned their professionalism.
Attorney Bailey Wingate said they were told Bellard would be available for a deposition, but it was taking too long.
Another matter was Bellard’s salary. He said prior chief appraiser, Roland Bieber, had 35 years of service and he was making almost $200,000 a year. Bellard was being paid the same amount in her first year as chief appraiser. He added chief appraisers in Harris County and Dallas Counties, much larger than Jefferson County, were paid the same.
Meanwhile, other Jefferson County officials, such as the sheriff and county commissioners, are making $90,000 a year.
Coon then rhetorically asked how much oversight was the board of directors exercising.
“They’ve been relatively passive,” he said.
He mentioned there’s now a vacancy on the board with the departure of Director C.L. Sherman. He believes the next director to be nominated should be someone open and energetic.
Coon began concluding his statements by saying these governmental entities need enough money to operate. Likewise, Jefferson County hasn’t grown in decades and government entities have to increase budgets off the same amount of properties, people, and industries by raising taxes.
Coon said the attorneys working on these proceedings are doing it pro bono; they are doing it because they are taxpayers themselves.
“The challenge is to inquire how did they get those numbers. This shouldn’t be the lawyers’ job,” he said.
A press release from Brent Coon and Associates read: “We implore the appraisal board to take this information and use it as the catalyst to terminate Angela Bellard of her capacity as Chief Appraiser of Jefferson County Appraisal District and instruct the lawyers of JCAD to forego the plea to the jurisdiction action.”
Tom Hanna, an attorney for the Jefferson County Appraisal District, stated he didn’t hear of Coon’s press conference until Friday afternoon.
“I was aware there was a lawsuit filed in court and we responded,” Hanna said. “We asked to dismiss it because there is no merit to the lawsuit.”
“There’s certainly nothing done (by Chief Appraiser Angela Bellard or the board of directors) to merit that in the way that matter would rise to that level. I’m surprised and shocked at these antics by a lawyer. It was handled in court where it needs to be.”
The lawsuit will go before Judge Donald Floyd’s 172nd District Court.
In a telephone interview, Bellard said it is her office responsibility to ensure properties are appraised at fair market value.
She said her office recorded “plenty of sales” of 1.5 story houses and the values were too low.
The schedules had to be adjusted to the market.
“As they’re done with all values,” Bellard said. “If they asked for five years of sales we would had given it to them. We’ve gave them 7,500 pages. We gave them everything they asked for.”
She added the JCAD is audited by the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts for values and procedures and they’ve passed. They also received a certificate of excellence from the International Association of Assessing Officers that is the highest standard there is.
Roland Bieber said the chief appraiser is responsible for appraising property at market value and it is solely Bellard’s job.
“I made the recommendation seven years ago to the appraisal staff,” he said. “The difference in cost, between a 1.5 story versus a 2 story, the savings do not translate to the market. I recommended and the appraisal board felt the same way.”
Bieber next spoke on Bellard’s qualifications and said he’s been knowing her for 30 years and there’s not a better person qualified for the office of chief appraiser in the State of Texas the JCAD could get for that salary.
“She knows what she’s doing,” he said. - Read the Full Article