A Taxing Situation

When the tax assessor raises the value of one house on a block through the roof, the question is: Who's next?

"In a lot of places in Texas, appraisals were done on order and then [a politician] could sit on the governing body and say, 'I've been here ten years and never voted once to raise the tax rate,' " says Robinson. "The system that was changed did away with that." But now a rising demand for revenue could bring that discredited approach to taxation back. What happened to Lee's appraisal is extreme, but it may well be part of the seemingly unavoidable march of increased property values, a march tacitly encouraged by local governmental entities that see their revenues swell without having to risk the political liability of asking for an increase in the tax rate. The rising evaluations amount to a silent tax increase: the public forks over more money without the opportunity to seek revenge by voting out the politician who supported a higher sales, income or property tax rate.

The dependence on such silent boosts in taxes was shown recently when Mayor Bob Lanier's financial people issued "slightly higher" numbers for predicted property values through 1998. Since the city's budget is tied to revenues expected to be reaped from those evaluations, discussion of their accuracy is no small matter.

Not surprisingly, City Controller George Greanias has criticized Lanier's projections as too optimistic. The discrepancies between the mayor's projections and even those of the appraisal district end up at a $10 billion difference in evaluation and a $60 million difference in revenue.

In recent years, property values in the city and county have generally gone up. The city's property values rose from $60.2 billion in 1989 to $64 billion in 1993. During that same period, the amount Harris County brought in from property taxes rose from $342 million to $382 million. Granted, these are not dramatic numbers -- certainly not as dramatic as a house's assessment doubling in one year. But compared with other sources of tax revenue, the growth in property taxes is healthy. Greanias, for one, is aware that increased property values translate into more tax dollars and an easy out for politicians. "It's clear that many in politics want the appraisal district to push values up, which in turn pushes revenues up without the politician having to take the hit about raising taxes," he says. "It's taxation by osmosis."

As far as Michael Lee was concerned, that osmosis wasn't going to equalize anything, but instead bleed him dry. Taken by itself, various amounts could be argued as the real worth of Lee's home. The house is well-kept and clean; it's obvious that Lee has put time and effort into its appearance, particularly the landscaping. The walk leading to his front door is a path of tiles laid in squares, with miniature mondo grass filling the center of every other square. The front walk is lined on each side with liriope grass. But the back yard faces an abandoned railroad easement, the Harris County Psychiatric Center and a power line. And while Lee's house is undoubtedly the jewel of his block, virtually all the other nearby houses on Ardmore are appraised in the $80,000 range. Lee once put his house up for sale and asked $300,000, just to see what would happen. The best offer he got was $120,000.

If there is a motive behind his more-than-doubled appraisal, Lee believes, it's that the appraisal district would like to begin raising property values in a neighborhood on the upswing. "They're hand-selecting properties and giving them a high appraisal," Lee says, "which gives them the foundation to raise appraisals on everyone else."

Lee realizes that his dissatisfaction over his property tax is not especially peculiar. He worries about coming off as just another "gripey homeowner" whining about his taxes. Yet he knows that his complaint is practically universal: it strikes a chord not only with any homeowner, but also with anyone who pays income, sales or an anything tax. Even in biblical times, the apostle Matthew was reviled for having been a tax collector. Of course, the Messiah cushioned him against such grief, advising his followers to keep church and state separate, but also to remember a tithe to both.

However ancient and common Lee's struggle is, as lost causes go, he has picked a doozy. In the popular perception of things unavoidable, taxation comes in second only to death. But Lee is determined to fight the appraisal; he sees it as nothing less than a struggle to survive. When he filed the suit he represented himself. At the initial hearing the judge advised against that approach, invoking the old maxim that whoever represents himself has a fool for a client.

The fight has consumed Lee. His struggle has gone from the specific problem with his house to a general criticism of the county-wide appraisal district. When he shows up to discuss his suit, he carries dozens of colored folders, each with some separate category of documentation or news clippings or background material. As he talks, he recalls articles he has read and studies he has unearthed, and he pauses briefly to recall which folder holds the piece in question and whether he's left it at his home office.

"I have friends who don't want me to talk about it anymore," a weary Lee says of his tax troubles. "They're tired of hearing about it."

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