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Friday, July 29, 2005

Tax protest firm sues HCAD, review board

HCAD is squirming:
Harris County property owners who protest their tax appraisals routinely lose because they face illegal obstacles, a lawsuit filed by a Houston firm that helps people challenge their appraisals contends. The lawsuit, filed Monday by O'Connor & Associates, alleges that Harris County's appraisal review board, which weighs protests, does not act independently of the Harris County Appraisal District, which appraises property. Jim Robinson, Harris County's chief appraiser, said the lawsuit is without merit and that review panels reduce appraised values in 70 percent to 80 percent of cases brought before them. The plaintiff argues that the appraisal district has inappropriate influence over the process of challenging appraisals, including controlling the scheduling of hearings, and fails to provide advance copies of its evidence, as required by law. "Some (appraisal review board) panels ignore the property owner's evidence of unequal appraisal even under circumstances where the district presents no evidence at all," the lawsuit says. O'Connor & Associates is seeking a temporary restraining order to prevent protest hearings until it ensures the protection of property owners' rights.
Full disclosure: While in college, I worked at O'Connor for three summers. (I don't work there now.) I represented property owners in about 2,500 hearings, and I can attest that the ARB's actions raise serious doubts about its independence. The law requires the appraisal district to make all its evidence available to the property owner 14 days before the hearing. Lately, the district has been introducing new evidence -- heretofore unseen by the property owner -- during the hearings, with no objections by the ARB. In most cases, ARB members are fair and reasonably impartial. But in many cases, the body effectively serves as an extension of the appraisal district, and that's just wrong. Pat O'Connor is a tenacious, smart guy who knows pretty much everything there is to know about tax appraisals. I get the feeling HCAD is running scared on this one.

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