Before the Texas House Ways & Means Committee hearing on Monday, citizens argued for the passage of House Bill 2403 from State Rep. Matt Krause (R–Haslet), which would reform the current “corrupt system” of electing appraisal district board members.

Appraisal districts across Texas set the taxable value of your home and properties. Local officials use that information when setting their budgets and deciding the rate at which to tax your home. While appraisal districts do not set the tax rate, the process by which appraisal districts set those values has been criticized as opaque and requiring more transparency.

Currently, citizens do not directly elect the board members of their appraisal districts; local governments within the appraisal district nominate and elect candidates, with each local government having a certain percentage of the vote.

As has been discovered in Tarrant County, it ends up being a contest of larger taxing entities versus smaller ones, with citizens largely left out. As of 2019, of the 4,981 votes allocated to the local governments within the Tarrant Appraisal District area for their board election, Tarrant County commissioners had 505 votes—more than 10 percent.

For comparison, Colleyville City Council had 20 votes—less than 1 percent. The City of Fort Worth, Fort Worth ISD, and the county combined held 32 percent of the vote.

“A lot of the time, the big taxing entities wait until the last instant to know where all the other votes are before they put their votes in, to ensure their candidates always get seated on the appraisal board,” Krause told committee members. “House Bill 2403 would end that loophole, making sure that you had standard uniform [election] dates so that everybody was playing from a fair playing field.”

For appraisal districts with a population of at least 120,000, HB 2403 would require local governments “entitled to at least 5 percent of the vote” to cast their vote by their first or second meeting after receiving the ballot. They would have to deliver their ballot no later than three days after voting.

In 2019, realtor Chandler Crouch led a grassroots effort to pressure local officials to elect citizen candidates to the Tarrant Appraisal District board. Citizens were successful in getting three of their candidates elected.

Krause, who worked with Crouch in the 2019 legislative session on property tax reform, teamed up with him again on HB 2403.

“Right now, the voting system to elect board members is corrupt,” Crouch told committee members on Monday. “We can’t expect any issues at the appraisal district to get fixed if the voting system to elect the people in charge of the appraisal district is a corrupt system.”

The reason why these issues exists is the voting system is too complex.

Crouch also read quotes he received from local elected officials, including Lakeside Mayor Pat Jacob and Colleyville City Councilman George Dodson, asking for help. State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D–San Antonio) took issue with Crouch reading quotes.

“I have a hard time corroborating they said that,” he said. “It’s difficult for me to take testimony when you’re telling me what someone else said.”

Fischer was silent during the next citizen’s testimony.

“What Mr. Crouch spoke to this entire committee happened to me,” said Daniel Bennett of Tarrant County. “In 2017, I was nominated by the White Settlement City Council to run for the Tarrant Appraisal District board of directors. I accepted the nomination as a citizen, as my duty.”

To prepare for the election, Bennett started researching how the county participated in the election process. “In viewing the Tarrant County commissioners’ 2016 vote, I was very troubled,” he said, adding he found a 2015 video in the county archives of County Administrator G.K. Maenius telling commissioners he had been calling TAD and tracking how the votes in that year’s election were going before commissioners had voted.

“This video demonstrated that the process of electing [board of director] members is flawed.”

He showed his findings to officials of 20 other local governments in Tarrant, and four decided they would wait to vote until after the Tarrant County commissioners.

“I was present at the commissioners’ December 7 … 2017 vote,” Bennett continued. “G.K. Maenius, while addressing the agenda item, stated that not enough entities had voted, so he recommended to the commissioners to table until December 14—one day that’s required before you have to submit your ballot to the chief appraiser.”

“The commissioners did just that. They tabled,” Bennett said. “It’s on video, don’t take my word for it.”

Bennett lost the election.

While he is “wholly in favor of” HB 2403, Bennett did ask committee members if they’d consider adding to the bill so it would address another critical flaw in the election process.

“The appraisal district within the property tax code, they have zero accountability when receiving these casted votes,” Bennett said. “There’s not a time stamp, there’s not a date stamp, there’s not acknowledgment.” He asked committee members to include language to have appraisal districts consider policies and procedures of ballot certification upon receiving them, as well as language to address chain of custody. “I can show this committee [entities in my county] that have voted that did not make the tally, and it made a lot of mayors not very happy.”

For Crouch, HB 2403 is not just about reforming the appraisal election, but it is part of an even greater mission.

“This past year, I protested the property tax values of about 20,000 people—did it all for free—and people call into my office on a daily basis crying, in tears, because they’re being taxed out of their homes,” he told committee members. “They’re desperate, and they’re looking for answers.”

This deeply disturbs me because I believe in the promise that we’re supposed to be able to pursue life, liberty, and property. And getting taxed out of your home by the government isn’t right.

Concerned citizens may contact their state representative. Legislation can be tracked through Texas Legislature Online. The 87th Legislative Session ends on May 31.

This article has been updated since publication.

Robert Montoya

Born in Houston, Robert Montoya is an investigative reporter for Texas Scorecard. He believes transparency is the obligation of government.