Jeff Law’s resignation as the chief appraiser at the Tarrant Appraisal District on September 1 was not unexpected. Calls for his resignation were made by the Tarrant County Commissioners Court, the City of Mansfield, and the mayors of Keller, Southlake, and Colleyville over the prior two weeks.
However, the TAD Board of Directors had just given Law a 3-2 vote of confidence in August, despite major issues at the agency under Law’s 15 years of leadership.
One of the biggest scandals within the agency is TAD’s long-standing problems with its computer systems.
Law chose the Aumentum software system to manage Tarrant County’s appraisal data for every real estate property in the county, and it was implemented in October 2014.
The change to the new software was done without a duel run with the prior software. As a long-time information technology professional, I know that it is critical to perform duplicate runs on both the old and new software, especially if it is more than a small incremental change from the prior software.
In this case, billions of dollars’ worth of property was left off the books, which caused taxing entities in Tarrant County to lose millions of tax dollars they were due. Law apologized for the problems, but he chose to pay for a consultant to help keep the Aumentum software running, costing the district millions of dollars until 2022.
An independent audit in late 2016 showed that there had been problems for two years, and some of those problems were still ongoing when the audit was conducted.
In 2019, while I was on the Colleyville City Council, I was told that there were still likely problems with the Aumentum software, prompting me to speak at a TAD board meeting that year. I explained that I had been a long-time IT management consultant and had helped large organizations overcome major problems by evaluating organizational and technical aspects of programs, computers, and processes used to manage their IT environments.
Since then, I have continued to speak at TAD board meetings to offer my assistance, and to express my concerns about TAD’s IT operations as well as other major blunders under Law’s management.
I repeatedly recommended another external IT audit to determine the state of operations and management of the billions of dollars of real estate in the county.
In 2021, the TAD board did vote to conduct an audit, but the audit was never carried out. The majority of the TAD directors appeared to only be on the board to approve of everything Law did, without upholding their charge of overseeing the entire operation of the district and taking actions against Law if problems were occurring.
The next big scandal within the Tarrant Appraisal District involved Law and another top executive targeting a private citizen.
In the Fall of 2021, the then-head of residential appraisals, Randy Armstrong, attacked Chandler Crouch, a realtor who protests citizens’ residential appraisals free of charge. Armstrong submitted multiple accusations about Crouch to the state licensing agency, using TAD’s confidential information, TAD’s postage, and his TAD title.
However, Law chose to keep the matter to himself and not divulge Armstrong’s activities to the board. It was only when Crouch notified the board of the attacks that Law admitted the actions.
Several hundred people showed up at the next TAD board meeting to complain about Armstrong and Law’s actions. Finally, the board took action, giving both Law and Armstrong two weeks of unpaid vacation in the summer of 2022. Armstrong has since retired.
The TAD board also asked Law to get an outside organization to investigate the issue. Law chose a law firm in Austin to conduct the review. When the review was complete, the board saw the full report but only released a summary to the public. Board member Rich DeOtte asked for the full report to be released, but the rest of the board refused. Now that Law has resigned, the full report should be released to the public.
The TAD board finally did issue a “letter of repair” to Law in April 2023, giving him 90 days to improve on various matters. However, in reading the letter, it is clear that the majority of the board had no intention of replacing Law. The 90 days set for correcting issues outlined in the letter were up by the time of the board’s August meeting. On August 11, the board took a “vote of confidence” in Law and chose to allow him to remain by a vote of 3-2. It was clear that some board members were willing to accept less than quality from Law for the appraisal district.
Also in April 2023, another IT scandal began unfolding. The Tarrant Appraisal District released a new website for the public to use to access their appraisal details, allowing taxpayers to get comparison information about other properties and prepare to challenge their appraisals.
The release of the website was a disaster. People could not access the website for several weeks, and information was not available during the 30-day timeframe for individuals to challenge their appraisals.
TAD did extend the appraisal protest deadline for 15 days, but the website still lacks features of the past site.
During the May 2023 TAD board meeting, I mentioned that given the problems with the website, it was very likely that the site was not properly stress-tested to help ensure it could handle the expected traffic from taxpayers as well as the many other organizations that depend on the data for their work.
It is very common in the IT industry to use simulated user scripts to run against programs to see how the programs operate in a test environment before putting the application into production.
I had also heard that TAD was complaining that the activity against the website was higher than they had experienced with the prior website. I again asked for an IT audit.
After the public comments, the TAD IT director was asked to report on the website situation. Director of Information Systems Cal Wood tried to make excuses for the site’s poor performance. They were not convincing to someone who understands computer systems. During Wood’s talk, a board member asked if the website was stress tested. Wood said it was.
We now know that Wood said, in an internal meeting, that he was fine with telling false information to the press so TAD’s IT department could have more time to fix the website.
Wood was put on leave when his recorded statements were made public, then fired by Law a few days later.
I have also learned that TAD had not been monitoring the activities on their website and didn’t know the types of traffic they had on the site.
It is clear that operations within TAD’s IT department were not being run efficiently or effectively. No part of our government should be run in a secretive, clandestine manner, which is how at least some parts of TAD are operating.
We taxpayers are paying the bills for the Tarrant Appraisal District, and we should expect all aspects of the district to be run transparently.
I have continued to speak at every board meeting, always asking them to conduct an IT audit by an external firm or allow me to do it for free.
It is so critical that the taxing entities choose individuals in the upcoming TAD Board of Directors election who will take responsibility for oversight of the entire TAD operation. All five board members will be up for election at the end of this year.
Nominations are due from the local taxing entities in October, and the election will happen in December. I am extremely displeased that the situation at TAD was allowed to fester for so long without the board taking corrective action, instead allowing the chief appraiser to do whatever he chose.
Citizens need to step up and take action on this now.
Ask your county, city, and school district officials to nominate and vote for director candidates who will select a new chief appraiser capable of managing the IT environment at the Tarrant Appraisal District.
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