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?

"The ARB is separate," Robinson says. "We don't have any contact. We moved Bartlett's office down on the second floor. Even if you move the ARB to Conroe, the law still says the chief appraiser or designee has to appear at every hearing, so you'd have the same number of hearings, the same amount of contact."

Whatever action the state takes, one thing that appears sure is that appraisal districts will be the subject of increasing attention in the years ahead, if for no other reason than because government is relying more and more on property taxes. Some of that mounting pressure is due to cutbacks in federal programs and grants, which result in some services' being dumped on local jurisdictions that rely on property taxes.

Robinson realizes this, pointing out that more local governments have to pick up the tab for services formerly provided by the state or federal government, or worse, pay for mandates from above. "Commissioners Court doesn't enjoy the jailhouse being full of state prisoners, but it's had to use a lot of county money to keep those prisoners in the Harris County jail," he says. Similar new chores have fueled the increase in property taxes. If the level of government that issues the mandate doesn't pay for it, the burden shifts down to the next level.

Even so, ARB chairman Bartlett denies that there has been any indirect or improper pressure from politicians or taxing units to raise property values. He does admit, however, that there are legal routes for taxing units to take if they think property in their area has been underappraised. The Houston Independent School District, for one, claimed that residential property was underappraised a few years ago, but the claim was refuted. Bartlett says individual municipal utility districts have sought redress, mostly to no avail.

But while this may seem a victory for the taxpayer, people such as Michael Lee and his mentor, Coach Hart, aren't about to accept the argument that they're engaged in a battle that doesn't really need fighting. Indeed, if the ARB were to dismiss Coach Hart as an extremist, a man who's redoubled his efforts after he's forgotten his aim, it would be as ill advised as it would be misleading. A Californian named Howard Jarvis was dismissed as a nagging nut for 15 years before he became an overnight sensation in 1978 with the passage of Proposition 13, which froze California property taxes at the 1975-76 level, except for a 2 percent annual hike for inflation. New homes, and homes that had just been bought, were assessed at current market values. Proposition 13 is alternately credited with saving taxpayers billions and blamed for forcing state and local governments to cut services because of insufficient resources.

But what nobody argues anymore is whether Proposition 13 was a watershed in California politics. It was, and Howard Jarvis was the prime mover. A sample of Jarvis' soap-box rhetoric shows his John the Baptist drive and even parallels what happened with Michael Lee's appraisal. "Along about 1972 I began to predict that we'd have 100 percent raises a year ... and then about 1975 we started to get 100 percent and 200 percent and 300 percent raises in one year," Jarvis wrote in his autobiography, I'm Mad as Hell. "All those years the public didn't believe a word I told them, and then it all came true."

Could Lee and Hart be Texas' distant early Jarvis? Maybe not. Texas taxpayers don't seem anywhere near a rebellion of Proposition 13 proportions. And Coach Hart doesn't appear all that mad at anyone. But you do get the idea that he's determined as hell. And a decade down the road, the Harris County Appraisal District may well look back and wonder why it messed with his and Michael Lee's house.

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