A glaring conflict of interest exists for the mayor of one of North Texas’ largest suburbs—he concurrently serves as a city official and as the county’s chief appraiser.
Lewisville Mayor Rudy Durham, who is also Denton County’s chief appraiser, now influences both factors in the equation used to calculate citizens’ property tax bills: the property tax rates of the county’s largest city and the appraised value of every property his city taxes.
Current law allows Durham to hold the conflicting roles, but bills filed by two state lawmakers would eliminate the conflict by disqualifying elected or appointed taxing entity officials from also serving as their county’s chief appraiser.
Durham has served on Lewisville’s city council since 1994 and was elected mayor in 2015. His job at the Denton Central Appraisal District goes back even further, to 1986; the DCAD board of directors hired Durham as chief appraiser in 2012.
If the proposed legislation passes, Durham will have to choose which job he wants to keep: mayor or appraiser.
Under Senate Bill 1261 filed by State Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R–Houston), no elected or appointed official of a taxing entity may serve as chief appraiser. State Sen. Pat Fallon (R–Prosper) filed similar legislation, Senate Bill 1146, that limits the prohibition to Texas counties with more than 20,000 residents. SB 1146 was referred today to the Senate Property Tax Committee, which Bettencourt chairs.
When Texas Scorecard reported on Durham’s conflict of interest back in 2017, Bettencourt agreed a county’s chief appraiser should not simultaneously serve as an elected official of a local taxing entity and said he would file a bill to stop the practice.
“[This] is a major conflict of interest and should not occur,” Bettencourt said. “The appraisal district should be firewalled off from the activities of the taxing entities; there is no doubt. It’s not even a question.”
After the bills were filed last week, Durham complained to local media that the legislation is aimed at him personally and is politically motivated:
“This is nothing new, except that I am mayor,” Durham said, adding that the push to change the law comes from Empower Texans, a right-leaning lobbying group in Austin. “All it’s doing is taking the rights of voters away,” Durham said. “They’re the ones harmed by all of this, since they can’t vote on who they want.”
Local government officials like Durham already control the board that hires the chief appraiser and provides oversight of the appraisal district. Every member of an appraisal district’s board of directors is elected—not by local taxpayers, but by taxing entities inside the county. The larger the taxing entity, the more votes they get.
Though clearly also a concern, the bills don’t prohibit elected officials from serving on appraisal district boards. Two members of the DCAD board are elected officials: board president Charles Stafford is a Denton school board trustee; board member David Terre is a council member in The Colony. A third board member, Mike Hassett, is married to a trustee on Lewisville’s school board—the largest taxing entity in the county with the most influence in DCAD director votes.
Conflicts of interest faced by DCAD’s directors and chief appraiser aren’t the only concerns Denton County taxpayers have about the agency. The appraisal district is in the midst of a public integrity investigation, according to reports by the Denton Record-Chronicle.
Last April, the board voted to retain a Dallas law firm to investigate the district’s “management efficiency and integrity and policies and procedures.” In November, district employees were asked to complete a survey with questions about integrity. This January, the board adopted new policies to shore up ethical behavior among the district’s licensed real estate appraisers.
DCAD board member Roy Atwood confirmed the investigation is ongoing.
SB 1146 and SB 1261 are designed to separate the control of appraised values from local taxing entities. Texans have long believed taxing entities had undue influence on how their properties are appraised. Durham’s dual roles only serve to feed that belief and foster a climate of distrust with the taxpayers.
Eliminating this obvious conflict is good for Texas taxpayers.