The Insider

Redistributing His Wealth
The Harris County Tax Appraisal District had a surprise Christmas present for outgoing Mayor Bob Lanier and wife Elyse, but it's not the sort of gift they'll treasure forever: Last week, HCAD doubled the tax bite on the couple's penthouse for the current year.

For that, taxpayers can thank the ever-vigilant Insider. After we reported on our election-night crawl through the mayoral roost at the Huntingdon ["An Election-Day Tale of Two (or Three) Cities," December 11], we received a query from a curious reader asking why the Laniers' condo at the high-rise was appraised by HCAD at a lower value than comparable domiciles on the building's less desirable floors.

As our correspondent pointed out, the Laniers' 6,300-square-foot quarters on the Huntingdon's 34th floor was assessed for tax purposes at $925,000, while a considerably smaller second-floor residence occupied by oilman Corbin Robertson and wife Wilhelmina was valued by HCAD at $1,525,490. Likewise, another smaller condo on the 17th floor, this one the home of entrepreneur/investor Ted Reynolds and wife Nancy, was valued at $1,113,200. Even grocery magnate Robert Onstead's property on the 30th floor, which according to HCAD records was under construction at the start of the year, had a tax valuation of just over a million dollars.

The Insider dutifully brought those figures to the attention of HCAD chief appraiser Jim Robinson, whose employees took another look at the agency's appraisal of the Laniers' penthouse. As a result, the HCAD appraisal review board more than doubled the valuation of the mayoral dwelling from $925,000 to $1,927,000. Robinson estimates the change will add approximately $30,000 to the Laniers' 1997 property-tax bill. Lanier spokeswoman Sarah Turner says the mayor will accept the revised valuation and will not exercise his right of appeal. (Before you shed a tear or two for Bob and Elyse, consider that lawyer Kenny Friedman, who oversees the mayor's blind trust, tells us Lanier's fortune has "increased significantly" during the six years the mayor has been in office.)

HCAD's Robinson says a subordinate mistakenly classed the Lanier penthouse as still under construction as of the first of this year. The appraiser apparently was not part of the circle of friends and acquaintances that the Laniers have been entertaining at the Huntingdon since the summer of 1996. The couple even staged a well-attended Christmas party at their penthouse that made the Chronicle's society pages well before the first of the year.

By applying for and receiving a homestead exemption on the property, the Laniers themselves in effect notified HCAD that they had occupied their residence by the first of the year. As outgoing Controller Lloyd Kelley learned to his dismay when he unsuccessfully sought an exemption for his Heights home, one must reside in a dwelling by New Year's Day to claim an exemption for that year.

Robinson says the HCAD division that grants exemptions is separate from the section that handles valuations, so the granting of the homestead exemption to the Laniers did not automatically alert appraisers that the mayor's penthouse was complete and occupied.

The situation points up a problem that the district has across the city -- getting accurate tax appraisals for expensive high-rise dwellings when HCAD officials cannot get inside the buildings. Sharon Boyd, Robinson's chief of residential valuations, says that HCAD has not been able to get beyond the lobby of the Huntingdon since 1987, and thus has had to base its valuations of the units on previous sales of space in the building.

According to Robinson, appraisers have the legal authority to enter businesses for tax valuation purposes but cannot enter a private residence without the owner's permission.

"We can say, 'Huntingdon, we're going into your office to inspect for business ... property and they cannot deny us access in that case,' " says Robinson. "But there's no statutory authority to go into anybody's house. I don't let my people go in, because in an urban environment -- that can raise problems I don't even want to deal with."

Guy Griscom, HCAD's assistant chief appraiser, points out another unique difficulty the agency faces in appraising high-rises properties: Permits for construction work inside the buildings often are not forwarded to HCAD by the condo operators.

"If we don't get those permits," explains Griscom, "then we lose another source of knowing when a particular property had a construction change. So you're limited to what they tell you in the building lobby when you talk to the management people about what's built out and what isn't."

Robinson says the lack of access to high-rises and building permits makes appraising big-ticket condominium units a hit-and-miss proposition.

"With the methodology and the inability to inspect it, you're going to be high on some and low on some," he adds. "Those that you're high on, you're going to hear from the property owner with a protest. Those you're low on, nobody's going to say a word."

Well, almost nobody.

He Died for This?
For the past few years, two rival groups have clashed over the right to stage Houston's "official" Martin Luther King Day parade in mid-January. The struggle is continuing over next year's festivities, though the complexion of the players has changed somewhat.

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