Texans must be allowed to challenge their property appraisers face to face even if the appraisers are afraid of being near other people during a pandemic, state Attorney General Ken Paxton said.
Facing questions from a state representative about whether the Galveston Central Appraisal District could hold all of its protest hearings via video conference, Paxton said state law requires in-person meetings.
Holding only virtual meetings could lead to lawsuits, Paxton said in an opinion written May 8.
Texas administrative codes “do not allow appraisal review boards to require protest hearings be conducted by videoconference in lieu of in-person hearings when requested by a property owner,” Paxton wrote.
Paxton’s opinion was issued in response to a request by state Rep. Mayes Middleton, a Republican from Wallisville whose district includes Galveston Island.
Middleton sought an opinion in April, after officials at the Galveston Central Appraisal District announced they were considering requiring people who want to challenge their property values before the Appraisal Review Board to do it by video-conferencing.
The coronavirus pandemic and its associated lockdowns were in full swing when county property owners began receiving their 2020 property valuations, which are used to determine property taxes.
Property values across the county generally increased, Galveston County Chief Appraiser Tommy Watson said. However, the values were based on home sales figures from 2019 and reflect the value of properties on Jan. 1, 2020 — months before people were affected by the economic slump of the coronavirus.
There could be an increase in property value protests as people seek to lower their property tax bills, officials have said.
Remote conferences were being considered out of concern for the safety of the board members and the public amid the coronavirus pandemic, Watson said. Normally, appraisal review board hearings are held in a room at the Central Appraisal District’s office in Texas City.
Middleton, however, argued that not allowing in-person hearings would violate the Texas Constitution and would put some Texans at a disadvantage when it comes to challenging their property values.
Middleton called Paxton’s opinion a victory for taxpayers.
“CADs cannot force remote or online hearings,” Middleton said. “After all, many Texans do not have high-speed internet or smartphones.”
Middleton’s April letter asked several other questions about the legality of the appraisal review board changing its processes and announcing the change on its website and whether property values might be rolled back to 2019 values because of possible violations made by the appraisal district.
If the district changes its hearing procedures, it must notify property owners of the changes with a letter and not just use its website, Paxton wrote. However, changes to property values can only be nullified in limited cases, Paxton wrote.
Watson on Friday did not respond to a request for comment about the district’s plans for appraisal reviews. Review hearings typically occur in May and June. State law requires property value protests to be completed by July 20.