Property appraisals across Kaufman County have soared, leading to a litany of disgruntled residents and business owners, and one angry former mayor, and a lawsuit against the county appraisal district.
Ray Hall was just one of thousands of Kaufman County residents who received a property appraisal in late April that was more than twice as much as its appraised value in 2018. Hall’s property on Seago St., which he rents out to tenets, was appraised at $64,240 last year. This year, the appraisal was $176,000.
“It’s probably actually worth $70,000, maybe $75,000,” Hall said when he visited the Kaufman Herald’s office last Friday to voice his complaints. “Of course, I’d like to think I could get $175,000 out of it!”
Indeed, the issue Kaufman County homeowners isn’t with the property values themselves, but rather the significant leap in property taxes that accompanies such dramatic valuation increases. Last year, Hall was required to pay $2,040.19 in taxes on his property. This year, his taxes due totaled $5,591.81.
While the value appraisal Hall provided to the Kaufman Herald does explain exactly where all of those taxes are going: $2,729.09 to Kaufman ISD, $1,582.26 to the City of Kaufman, $842.85 to Kaufman County, $243.93 to Trinity Valley Community College and $183.68 to roads and bridges, they don’t explain why his or any of the other thousands of homes and businesses saw their appraisals double and triple.
“I’d sure like to find out what possessed them to do this,” Hall says on his way out the front door.
Sarah Curtis, the county’s chief appraiser, did not respond to a request for an interview last Friday, but did provide information to InForney explaining that the Appraisal Review Board (ARB) will be reviewing evidence and making determinations regarding value, equity, exemptions and taxability.
“There is no way to protest the amount of the increase or the amount of the estimated tax,” Curtis told InForney. “[The ARB] can only determine whether your market value is correct.”
However, this seems to contradict the number of successful protests Kaufman County residents have filed with the appraisal district. Hall himself successfully protested his appraised value knocking it down from $176,000 to $108,000. If his market value was indeed off by that much (a whopping $68,000 i.e. more than his entire property appraisal just one year ago), it calls into question the validity of the county’s tax appraisals as a whole.
Enter former Forney mayor Rick Wilson who filed a class action lawsuit against Curtis and the Kaufman County Appraisal District on May 1 before losing his position as mayor to Mary Penn in the city election on May 4. While the majority of Kaufman residents were seeing dramatic increases in property evaluations across the board last month, a 1.4-acre tract of land off Highway 80 owned by Wilson was appraised at $28,860, down from $610,710 last year while another 13-acre tract was appraised at $273,720 down from $1.7 million the year before. The appraisal district later confirmed that these violent decreases were the result of an application error and also confirmed that similar errors had been made when calculating values in the Devonshire and Vintage Meadows subdivisions.
Although the appraisal district claims that all of these errors have since been corrected, Wilson, who faced some political blowback and accusations of preferential treatment from the appraisal district, wasn’t satisfied. When Deputy Chief Appraiser Coy Johnson told Matt Howerton from WFAA that property owners needed to review their appraisals and call the appraisal district if they found a discrepancy, Wilson shot back “They know they have a problem. They should be addressing it themselves and not make the citizens come in and do it for them.”
Wilson’s lawsuit highlights the fact that, due to these property value hikes, property owners are “facing the possible loss of their business, loss of their homes and buyers are cancelling purchases as a result of this unprecedented and unconstitutional valuation upsurge” and claims that the chief appraiser’s actions “violate the Texas constitutional and statutory mandates to value properties in an equal and uniform manner.” The lawsuit also contains a startling statistic: “the total 2019 property valuations by the Kaufman County Appraisal District increased by $2 billion” in just one year.
As of press time, a date had not been set for the suits first hearing, but the case will be heard by Kaufman County Court at Law Number 2 Judge Bobby Rich. If the suit Iis successful, it would likely result in the appraisal district completely re-evaluating every property in the county, a process which could take months. In the meantime, Kaufman Herald readers have been more-than-willing to describe some of their horror stories relating to their property tax increases.
“We own several properties,” Barbara Sutton said. “All have more than doubled. Our business went up over $500,000 with no updates or improvements! Seriously? I guess keeping the grass mowed makes the value of your property go up. I say these people all need to be replaced immediately.”
“I have looked at every house on Jefferson, Jackson and Austin,” Tonya Ford said. “They all have tripled, some even more than that. Our lot went from $11,000 to $22,500, so comparisons aren’t going to help any of us here in the city. We have falling down rental homes appraised at over $100,000. Ridiculous!”
“I was about to try to purchase a home [in Kaufman], but now I’m scared to,” Lauren Soto-Turner said to which Jewel Pirtle responded, “I would not purchase a home in Kaufman County.”
“If Kaufman County is going to raise the taxes so much, then they can buy my property and I will move,” Pirtle continued. “This is ridiculous. And the money surely is not going to the roads.”
Even under normal circumstances, Texas has some of the highest property taxes as a percentage of the total property evaluations in the country. In 2017, Texas’ median property tax rates were the third-highest in the United States at 1.81 percent with only New Jersey at 1.89 percent and New Hampshire at 1.86 percent edging it out. Conversely, Louisiana has the lowest property tax rates at just 0.18 percent.
Although the median rate comes in at less than 2 percent, however, Kaufman County’s tax rates are significantly higher than that. According to 2019 DFW area property tax rates, Kaufman properties are being taxed at an average of 2.93 percent of the overall property value, more than an entire percentage point above the state median and a higher rate than much more urban districts like Rockwall at 2.32 percent, Allen at 2.32 percent, McKinney at 2.49 percent and even Dallas at 2.79 percent, Irving at 2.65 percent and Arlington at 2.81 percent. Forney’s tax rates are even higher at 2.97 percent and Heartland’s taxes are all the way up at 3.05 percent.
One Kaufman Herald reader, Chip Murrey, argues that this deep-seated problem can only be solved at the state level.
“The state has set a total property tax figure that the counties and school district have to meet via your appraisals and if they do not meet that criteria then the state withholds your school district funding,” Murrey said. “Everyone needs to call your state representatives and tell them its not right and needs to be fixed.”
The Texas Legislature, currently in session in Austin, has debated a number of resolutions and bills to help alleviate property tax concerns. One, which received blowback from the Kaufman County Commissioners Court earlier this year, involves capping annual rollback rates at 2.5 percent before requiring a special election. Kaufman County Judge Hal Richards argued that this would put the burden on counties to keep up with inflation, which has been higher than 2.5 percent 33 out of the last 50 years.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott also proposed increasing sales taxes in exchange for property tax relief, but this proposal was roundly criticized by both Democrats and Republicans for shifting the tax burden to poorer Texans in favor of wealthier homeowners and has since been abandoned.