Sunday, November 15, 2009

Onward Through the Fog

City, County and school taxes attract a lot of voter attention. City has managed to reduce its core ad valorem tax rate at least one cent a year five years running, County has held the line against costs and unfunded mandates, and SAISD had to try twice to get part of its bond proposal passed.

A recurring complaint is that "tax rates be damned, my bill is (same/higher) those nasty Appraisers keep pumping up my bill". Posters on the Standard-Times' e-site accuse the city and county of manipulating appraisals as a disguised tax increase. For sure, the Tom Green County Appraisal District is the least understood government entity in the county, and this is likely true statewide.

I'm going to try to de-mystify the District and its functions. For background, the statutory guide is primarily Chapter Six of the Texas Property Tax Code. I also interviewed Bill Benson, our Chief Appraiser. A most forthcoming gentleman, if anything he seemed tickled pink that someone was interested in his usually obscure office.

There is a Board of Directors and a Review Board, each composed of local citizens. Can you name one of them? December 15 is not only the run-off date for Mayor, it is election day for the Appraisal Board of Directors, I'm guessing you didn't know that. Don't feel ignorant, until State Constitutional Amendment Three spurred me to nose around, I didn't have a clue either.

As to the election, don't look for a ballot. The Directors are elected by the taxing entities in a county. In Tom Green, there are 5,000 votes divvied up between the city, county and school districts according to each entity's percentage of the "take". This year's election is based on last year's revenue, so SAISD does not yet get the increase from the bond they will vote next time. The ballots have already been sent, must be returned by Dec. 15. The votes are cast cumulatively by each body and there is no rule against getting together on voting strategy. the voting strength this year is as follows:

San Angelo Independent School District: 1,839 votes
City of San Angelo: 1,521 votes
Tom Green County: 1,180 votes
Wall Independent School District: 130 votes
Grape Creek Independent School District: 93 votes
Christoval Independent School District: 89 votes
Water Valley Independent School District: 84 votes
Veribest Independent School District: 48 votes
Miles Independent School District: 16 votes

Note that next election SAISD's bond issue will count. SAISD will get more votes, the others correspondingly fewer. Rough estimate depending on tax rates; SAISD will have nearly as many votes as City and County combined, increasing its plurality to 40%+. And yes, Miles is in Runnels County, but part of its school district takes in a small chunk of northeast Tom Green. Many years ago I lived north of Orient, my kids and my mail went to Miles. Similarly, Water Valley takes in a small part of Coke County.

OK, now we have a Board, what does that Board do? Ours typically meets 6-8 times a year at the call of the Chair, they must meet once a quarter. The Board hires the Chief Appraiser (who is a non-voting member of the Board); it sets the budget; it appoints the Review Board which rules on taxpayer appeals of evaluation; and every two years they develop and approve a written plan for periodic re-appraisal and approve said plan no later than Sept. 15 of each even-numbered year.

All meetimgs are subject to Open Meetings Act and are posted at the County Courthouse. Under 6.05(i), the biennial plan must follow a public hearing advertized in the local paper of record (Standard-Times). It really was posted, I suspect I paid it as much mind as everyone else, to wit: none.

There are a bunch more details, but I don't want to spend time parsing the difference between the second degree of affinity and the third degree of consanguinity as regards allowable employees.

What is of interest is the appraisal method selected, possibly demanded with Amendment Three. Tom Green uses "highest and best use". Not to wade too far in the weeds in accounting practises I don't follow, h&bu means a property can be valued not for existing use, but the value of the new business a block or two away. The real horror story example is a third generation home a couple blocks from the new Jerry Jones Tax-Payer Ripoff Stadium. {Full disclosure; I am a huge Cowboys fan, but Jerry has plenty of money, he needs mine because...?}

Amendment Two would cover it now, but a $60,000 home was re-valued at $600,000, a not unrealistic value as parking lot. Result: a loss of homestead similar to the infamous Kelo decision without the inconvenience of an eminent domain hearing; taxpayer could not afford a bill ten times higher, and loses property in foreclosure.

Now the "budget" is that of the Appraisal District, building lease, salaries, etc. Board has nothing to do with the budgets of the taxing authorities.

Frankly, I wish I had looked at Amendment Three more closely. I supported 3, which will set a single state-wide standard for appraisal accounting, but upon further review; No. I don't like "highest & best use", but I also realize, metro areas have different requirements than our more residential use property. A standard appropriate to a highly commercial district might over-charge a largely residential district. God's honest, I would prefer a system of gov't revenue that did not rely on "quit-rents" or property taxes, but tarrifs don't seem to be making a big comeback.

I tend to the Libertarian side of government. That is not so much reflexive anti-tax, as anti-gov't spending on silly stuff. Example; the money ($240,000) spent on skinny trees on the Bryant/Harte interchange might have bought synchronized traffic lights.

Really not the point: the Appraisal District is only responsible for raising money. As such it is easily characterized as the black-hooded fellow in the Hagar the Horrible comic strip. Truth is; services must be paid for. The Appraisal District is not the door to knock on for waste or fraud, it is solely charged with raising the money to fund that which we and our elected officials deem necessary.

I'm sure the next complainant about appraisals will have attended an Appraisal Board meeting. Just kidding, but... Also in Chapter Six; we are not only allowed, but once County hits 125,000 population, required to have a Taxpayer Liason officer whose job is making these mysteries public.

On the one hand, Appraisal Districts are the under-appreciated, necessary functionaries of revenue raising, and I have some sympathy for that view. Other hand, a rising view is rather than fight issues one by one, choke off the income and force the gov't to live within its means.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Allergic to the Drug War

It is that time of the year when my seasonal allergies ambush my body's immune system. For about two and a half months out of the year I live on benadryl and as my symptoms get severe, I have to add psuedophedrine to keep my nose from running like a faucet.

Turns out, some clever lads have discovered ways to transform my perfectly legal, over-the-counter medicine into a crude form of methamphetamine. As part of our War on Drugs, I do not just get my medicine off the rack and pay for it like any other. I get a card off the shelf, take it to the pharmcist (assuming one is on duty, if after hours, I'm out of luck), present photo ID, sign a lenghthy form swearing I will not divert my OTC Sudafed to illicit purposes and wait to see if the nanny-state has any further objections to my purchase.

About this time, with half my lunch hour gone, it occurs to me that if I were buying the meth everyone is afraid my allergy medicine might be turned into, I would already have that.

Understand, I am not making light of the meth problem; I've known people who have gone 'round the bend under influence of same. What I would like is a scintilla of evidence that my inconvenience has in any way served the public good.

Sad to say, all evidence says otherwise. We have tried long (and horribly expensive to taxpayer) prison terms; assett forfeiture, similar results. As we cut off the head of Druglord A, three underlings, B,C and D grow hydra-like from the body and after the formality of a turf war adds to the body count, the machine is soon running at peak efficiency again.

Two things are evident: my time wasted is real and; the effectiveness of the law wasting my time is zero. So far as what I hear, any meth tweaker looking for a fix can still find it in less time than I wait to get my legitimate medicine.

Also evident is there is little chance this nuisance law will be repealed. Good sense it might be, but good press, not so much. Any legislator proposing repeal would be labelled "soft on (drug) crime". Once in force, any law, especially any law related to drugs, has huge inertia to remain in place.

What we might learn from this example is to more carefully consider new legislation in any field.