EDINBURG — Three Rio Grande Valley congressmen are joining a growing chorus of elected officials calling on Gov. Greg Abbott to freeze 2020 property tax valuations as Texans continue to endure economic hardships on account of the coronavirus pandemic.
Ten members of the Texas Democratic Congressional delegation — including U.S. Reps. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, and Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo — sent a letter to Abbott on Wednesday requesting he suspend any raises, interest and penalties on property taxes for the current taxable year.
“Texans are facing an unprecedented crisis due to the coronavirus,” Gonzalez said in a news release Thursday. “We implore Governor Abbott to offer hardworking Texans a financial reprieve during this once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.”
The request comes as a crucial deadline approaches.
Each year, the Hidalgo County Appraisal District sends out notices to property owners whose valuations have increased by more than $1,000, as is customary across the state. Those owners have 30 days to contest the appraisals, and this year, the deadline is Monday.
The only difference is protests cannot be made in person because the local appraisal office remains closed due to the ongoing threat of COVID-19. Those wishing to file a claim, must do so instead via mail, a drop box outside the building located at 4405 S. Professional Drive in Edinburg, or through an online portal on the district’s website, hidalgoad.org.
As of Monday, 13,495 people had already protested their home values, according to weekly reports published on the district’s website.
Hidalgo County Assistant Chief Appraiser Jorge Gonzalez said many residents are relying heavily on the online portal.
“A lot of people are actually taking advantage of that, which we have had for quite some time. But of course, you know, our doors were always open,” he said Wednesday.
In Hidalgo County, many people saw their valuations go up, but that’s partly because the state, which audits the district every two years, indicated earlier this year that the valuations for a majority of the school districts were too low, Jorge Gonzalez said.
“Part of that audit is they send their team of appraisers to verify our values to make sure we’re doing our job according to the tax code,” he said. “And they told us 10 of the 16 school districts that we appraised did not meet the value according to the defenders or the code — in other words, we’re (appraising) too low.
“They’re basically saying you guys aren’t staying up to par with what the market is indicating in each of these school districts.”
Those increases, however, could not come at a worse time, according to lawmakers and industry leaders who have been calling for a freeze on 2020 valuations.
Last week, Jonathan Lindley, president of the Greater McAllen Association of Realtors (GMAR), sent a letter to Hidalgo County Chief Appraiser Rolando Garza on behalf of its more than 1,200 members.
“We are in complete agreement with Congressman Vicente Gonzalez on his position that property valuations should be stayed at the previous year’s amounts and that the county should seek assistance from federal funds to subsidize any losses to the county budget that would come from a loss of an increase in income,” Lindley wrote.
Not doing so “could have a devastating impact to the citizens and voters of Hidalgo County,” the letter stated.
Jorge Gonzalez, however, argued it’s not up to the local appraisal district to freeze valuations. It doesn’t have the power to do so, he said.
“We don’t actually make these laws at a local level. These are state laws,” he said. “We don’t follow the guidelines from the county or from the school or from the city. We follow the laws that are put in the books by the state government, which in this case is the legislative body of the state of Texas.”
If there are changes, then lawmakers designate the Texas Comptroller’s Office of Public Accounts to set the rules and regulations that appraisal districts then have to follow, the assistant chief appraiser said.
“There would have to be some sort of communication from their office, and it has to be placed, of course, in the tax code, which only gets revised every other year,” he said. “And it’s not due for revision this year. It doesn’t get revised until a year from September.”
The appraisal district has been in contact with both the governor’s and comptroller’s offices, he said, seeking guidance on the issue.
“We’ve been trying to get ahead of this thing and it’s very difficult,” Jorge Gonzalez said. “However, in a nutshell, they pretty much told us that we still have to follow the law.”
Those who disagree with their appraisals are urged to file a protest before Monday’s deadline. A prefilled protest form has been included with each appraisal notice, and homeowners should consider including documents that support their case, including but not limited to photographs, settlement statements, sales contracts, sales of comparable properties and repair estimates. Other examples of supporting documentation can be found on the district’s website, hidalgoad.org, and other inquiries can be made at (956) 381-8466 and (956) 565-2461.