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?

He finally gave up the idea of representing himself: just last month he hired a lawyer, though the expense worries him. Even if he wins the case, the most the court may award is attorney's fees equal to the tax savings. That means about $2,000 in Lee's case, probably one-fourth or one-fifth of what he will have to pay his lawyer.

"Even if I'm successful, right after the suit [the district] can reappraise to that value again," Lee says. "So if someone spends $10,000 extra to protest their taxes, and then right after it's over they raise them again, what's the logic?

"As a taxpayer you are totally at their mercy, particularly the small guy, the homeowner. If a developer saves $60,000 in taxes, spending $10,000 to get there, who cares if they reappraise it next year? Big deal."

Facing such prospects, Lee was worried, confused and isolated. He didn't know where to turn for information. Then several people referred him to "Coach Hart." Lee describes Hart as "the only one so far who really understands the whole picture. I'm just a guppy out of water. Coach Hart was able to put things in some kind of methodology. I had no idea."

If Dan "Coach" Hart does have a methodology, it's spread all over his sofa in the front room of his Memorial-area home. Neatly stacked Harris County Appraisal District and Appraisal Review Board publications, news articles, background materials and correspondence cover the sofa and a nearby table. The topic is property taxes, and Hart's knowledge is encyclopedic, his singlemindedness startling. Lee found in Hart a companion soul, an experienced ally and a wealth of agreeable data. Hart was, in fact, a football coach for some 30 years at the private, upscale Kinkaid High School, and though he's left the clipboard and whistle behind, he still has a Vince Lombardi zeal and a spiel that, with a few changes, would fit many a halftime pep talk.

When the 62-year-old retiree takes off on the Harris County Appraisal District, he means what he says and is anything but self-conscious. "This is a personal thing with me now," he says. "I am extremely, highly motivated by a fiduciary responsibility to other people. Whether it's the kids at Kinkaid School, the parents or whoever it is, I am highly motivated by that."

Granted, Hart's preoccupation with the topic was at first in self-interest, but his involvement has gone beyond protests over his own appraisal several years ago. Standing in front of the ranch-style house he built off Memorial Drive in the 1960s, he does mention that his appraisal was just raised $32,000 to $207,000 and points to a newly built mansion across the street that just went for $600,000, but he quickly leaves all that behind to walk inside and start describing a tape he just acquired from the ARB.

"I asked the district to furnish me tapes of the ARB training sessions," Hart says. "They told me, 'You are the first person ever to ask for one of these tapes. Why do you want them?' Well, I said I want them to learn how the rules are."

The importance of preparation and scouting your opponent is not something Hart has forgotten from his coaching days. He also hasn't forgotten strategy. He knows that horror stories about wronged homeowners won't sway public opinion; when citizens see the institutional problems of the appraisal district and its inbred conflicts of interests, that's when reform might happen, Hart believes. That taxing units appoint the district's board of directors and that those directors hire the ARB, which is supposed to be judge and jury on a taxpayer's appeal, is the crux of the problem, he feels.

"If every taxpayer in this city had the understanding I have about this, and knew about the shenanigans these jokers are pulling, what do you think would be the consequences?" he asks. "They'd be blowing [radio talk-show hosts] Jon Matthews and Mike Richards off the radio with complaints, and they'd be in Senator Don Henderson's law office."

But every taxpayer doesn't know, so Hart is trying to educate the public and keep legislators up-to-date with what's wrong with the district and how to fix it. He's compiled a folksy, spiral-bound book with the working title "Texas Homeowners Property Tax Savings Guide," which he hopes to make available to taxpayers. He's optimistic that some of his ideas may gain an audience in the 1994 Legislature.

Despite his wide-ranging criticism of the district, Hart's basic remedy boils down to three proposals. First, replace the district's board of directors, now appointed by the taxing units, with a board elected by citizens. Next, do not let the ARB, which is supposed to be an impartial review panel, be trained by district officials. Lastly, prohibit former members or employees of taxing units from serving on the ARB. If enacted, says Hart, those three changes would provide citizen input into actions of the appraisal district and at least give the appearance that the ARB is separate from the district.

"What we want to do is make the whole bureaucracy, the whole system fairer and impartial for the average citizen, not necessarily better for the district or the director or the ARB or the taxing units or anybody else," Hart says.

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