EDITORIAL: Burdened

Property taxpayers need help with new valuations

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted our lives and the functioning of government, and left many people dealing with lost jobs or reduced hours. Given these extreme and unusual conditions, the federal government saw the need to issue relief checks and extend income tax filing deadlines.

Given those same conditions, state and local officials should consider offering a similar kind of property tax relief. Ten Congress members representing Texas districts, including the Rio Grande Valley’s three members, have asked Gov. Greg Abbott to freeze property tax valuations at last year’s assessments.

The Greater McAllen Association of Realtors has filed a similar request with the Hidalgo County Tax Assessor’s Office, and we assume similar requests have been made statewide.

In the absence of such a freeze, officials should allow more time for people to appeal increases in assessed values.

Once annual property valuations are sent out, property owners generally have 30 days to file a notice of protest with the appraisal review board. This isn’t a normal year, however. Some property owners face deadlines as early as Monday, but most county tax offices, like other government buildings, have been closed since March due to the pandemic.

The problem affects the entire state, but perhaps nowhere more than Hidalgo County, where many property owners report their valuations have more than doubled over last year. The deadline to file a protest is Monday, but the county tax office, like most others, has been closed.

County officials say taxpayers could have used the office’s online portal or mailed in their appeals. Many local homeowners, however, don’t have internet access or the confidence that they can use it effectively. They might not be sure that they understand the valuation and the bill, and feel the need to visit the office and ask a few questions before they even decide whether an appeal is warranted.

They haven’t been able to ask those questions if the office has been closed.

The local officials blame the increases on the results of a state audit, which reported that many parcels in local taxing districts were undervalued. State law, however, limits increases in valuations to 10% per year, and large adjustments might have to be phased in over several years.

Changes in property tax bills should never be too extreme, as state law limits annual increases in both valuations and tax rates, which are multiplied together to determine the bill each taxpayer receives.

The Hidalgo County tax office reports that as of last Monday more than 13,000 people had filed protests; such numbers suggest strongly that this isn’t a routine year, and it can’t be handled in a routine way.

Abbott has used his emergency authority under the pandemic to close businesses and schools, restrict public travel and make other special provisions. He should likewise consider rescinding valuation increases or at least extending the appeals process; and he needs to do it immediately, as some of those deadlines already are upon us.