Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect the cost of Harris County's appraisal district election.

On May 4, voters in Texas’ 50 largest counties will have the chance to elect three people to their local property appraisal district boards. The elections are mandated under Senate Bill 2, the sweeping property tax relief legislation passed in July.

Voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment cutting property taxes in November. The lengthy proposition also added three elected positions to appraisal district boards in counties with populations over 75,000.

Proponents of the change said it would increase public oversight of appraisal districts, while some county leaders expressed concerns about the cost of holding a new election and the possibility of injecting politics into the nonpartisan boards.

Texans have until April 4 to register to vote in the May election.

The overview

The new law requires that appraisal district boards in Texas’ 50 most populous counties each have eight unpaid members who serve staggered four-year terms.

Three of those members will be elected, while the other five are appointed by local governments and school districts. Candidates do not have to file with a political party to run in the May 4 election.

Some counties, like Travis and Harris, already have more than five people on their appraisal district boards of directors. These counties had to determine which members would remain appointed and which would be forced to run for an elected seat.

Some Texans may assume they are electing people to set local property values. However, board members serve in more administrative roles, such as hiring the chief appraiser and setting the appraisal district’s annual budget. The chief appraiser assesses property values and issues tax exemptions.

Terms to know

Property tax systems can be difficult to understand. According to the Texas comptroller and the Texas Legislature, the following terms are defined as follows:
  • Appraisal district: an entity responsible for assessing property values within a county’s boundaries
  • Appraisal district board of directors: an eight-member governing board that sets the district’s annual budget, appoints members of the appraisal review board, hires the chief appraiser, communicates with local taxing entities and more. Board members are not paid for their work.
  • Appraisal review board: a board of citizens that hears taxpayer protests and corrects errors in appraisal records. Each board consists of three or more members who serve two-year terms.
  • Chief appraiser: the chief administrator of an appraisal board. A chief appraiser discovers, lists, reviews and appraises all taxable property within a county.
  • Tax assessor-collector: the county official that deals with other taxes and services, such as motor vehicle registration, alcoholic beverage permits, court fees, voter registration and more
  • Taxing entity: cities, counties, hospital districts, school districts and other local government bodies that provide services funded by taxes.
How we got here

Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Houston Republican who wrote the legislation, said he has received consistent feedback from Texans about a lack of public oversight in county appraisal districts.

“The main complaint was that taxpayers weren’t being listened to,” Bettencourt said.

County appraisal districts were created in 1979, when lawmakers approved SB 621 to rein in a chaotic property tax system. At the time, each taxing entity could issue independent property valuations, and over 3,000 separate tax offices existed across the state.

“One of the main reasons for that massive change [in 1979] was to remove any political pressure from the appraisal process,” said Brent South, the chief appraiser for Hunt County in northeast Texas and the legislative director for the Texas Association of Appraisal Districts. “And there's always that concern that elected board members or elected chief appraisers just brings politics and political pressure right back into the system.”

Holding an election is expensive—and local appraisal districts have to foot the bill, South said. Officials in Harris County, the largest in Texas, told Community Impact the new election would cost about $4.1 million.

“So here we are with a bill that was passed by the Legislature and the main purpose of the bill was for property tax relief,” South said. “Yet, it has something in it that creates an additional cost to the taxpayers. It's paid out of the appraisal district budget, which is taxpayer dollars.”

South said lawmakers did not consult TAAD when creating the new requirements for appraisal boards, but he hopes to work together during future legislative sessions.

“I know they want to have transparency in the process, and we’re all about transparency,” South said. “I just think if we can work with them and have a little bit more input moving forward, we can come up with a better approach to provide that transparency at a lower cost for the taxpayers.”