If you’ve owned a home in Texas for any amount of time, you’ve joined thousands who have felt the pinch of skyrocketing property tax bills.

And this year, higher appraisals — stunningly higher for some homeowners — are particularly shocking and hard to understand because COVID-19 has tanked the economy, leaving many of us struggling financially to make it through this pandemic.

But this unfair process, loaded onto the backs of homeowners, has been going on for a long time.

There is something wrong with a system that creates a tax bill so high that folks are forced to consider whether they can afford to stay in their homes.

The reality is that our tax bills are the result of a complicated and often confusing set of laws, policies and procedures. But simply put, there are two sides of the equation: the appraised value and the tax rate.

We find ourselves in a constant tug-of-war with officials on one side saying lower the tax rate and those on the other side saying lower the appraisal values. And in the middle, homeowners are saddled with the ever-growing tax bills.

We’re calling on officials on both sides of this situation to work together on some real solutions. And for homeowners to pay close attention to both.

Here’s how we got here.

Sen. Paul Bettencourt, the Houston Republican chair of the property tax committee, reminded us that homeowners won’t see any results from the much celebrated reforms that put a 3.5 percent cap on property tax revenue growth for cities and counties until next year.

On top of that, the super-hot Texas economy that existed Jan. 1 — when appraisals at market value are mandated — generated steeply higher appraisals for homeowners. Then COVID-19 hit.

The pre-COVID appraisal situation can’t be allowed to stand.

We’ve praised lawmakers for the work they’ve done to control tax rate revenues. But they also must turn their attention to the appraisal system.

The good news is that Bettencourt told us the state is set for a ratio study of property valuations in the fall. It’s sort of a report card to gauge the quality and accuracy of appraisals. It’s a statistical analysis that compares the appraised value to the market value of a property. That can get at how well appraisal districts are performing.

Lawmakers also are pushing for standardized valuation methods across the state to better compare apples to apples on properties.

He also encourages homeowners to participate in the process when tax rates are being set by local governments in the summer and early fall. And for some shorter-term relief if they feel their values are too high?

Protest. There’s evidence that it works.

Take Harris County, for example, which had the highest average value increase of 8.75 percent in the state. It has already settled nearly 60,000 cases below last year’s values.

And we encourage taxing entities to redouble efforts at payment plans for tax bills and work to give hurting property owners breaks on penalties and interest.

Here’s an uncomfortable truth: Municipalities need our tax dollars to provide services. But they must take into account that there’s only so much homeowners can contribute.

Collin County Judge Chris Hill — in one of the fastest-growing counties in the country for many years running — operates under the principle that when values go up, the county should reduce its rate accordingly. He hears from homeowners who are frustrated by their high appraisals. But he said it’s deceptive of any official to tell every homeowner to protest, as Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins recently did, when they can just lower the tax rate.

We know it’s not that simple. Jenkins proposed lowering Dallas County’s rate only to be shot down by commissioners.

And while appraisal districts are hamstrung in some ways by inflexible laws, they still must find solutions for a more equitable appraisal system.

We’ve had too much finger-pointing over who’s most responsible for our high tax bills. It’s time we finally do something about them.

• Dallas Morning News editorial board


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(1) comment

Jim Casey

The homestead exemption could be linked to property values instead of being raised by a fixed amount when lawmakers make it a priority to do so.

That would transfer more of the tax burden to commercial property owners, which in turn increases rent. But these are political compromises that have to be worked out.

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