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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.

Leadership of one of the competing organizations --the Martin Luther King Jr. Parade Foundation --has been assumed by Marijon Johnson, whose husband is the president of David Weekley Homes. Johnson, who is white, is vowing to make the foundation's MLK Day celebration more inclusive of the community and not just a "black parade."

Meanwhile, African-American activist Ovide Duncantell still maintains that Johnson's group has "hijacked" the annual event from his Black Heritage Society, which sponsored the parade for two decades before ex-con Charles Stamps started the rival effort. Stamps is still chairman and CEO of the Parade Foundation, but Johnson has been named president of the nonprofit.

Last year, Stamps's group secured permits for downtown parades on every Saturday and Monday around the MLK holiday through the year 2003. Duncantell claims Stamps got a friend in the city bureaucracy to throw out the Black Heritage Society's earlier application for parade dates in favor of the Parade Foundation. City Attorney Gene Locke advised Duncantell at the time to take the matter to court, but Duncantell said his group could not afford to pay for litigation.

The Parade Foundation will hold two parades next month. The first will be "an international youth event" on the Saturday before January 19; the second will be staged on the traditional Monday holiday. (Duncantell says his group will try to hold a parade somewhere outside of downtown.)

"We are doing some things different," says Johnson, who cites her credentials as a volunteer on child and drug-abuse issues as evidence of her community involvement and sensitivity to minority issues. "We're bringing in people from all the different groups. We have one person on our board who is Jewish, we have a Cuban woman, and they all have their understanding of what King meant to them ... We really don't see it as a 'black parade,' but an issue that affects human rights totally."

The only King family member to come to Houston for last year's holiday observance was MLK's nephew, Vernon King, who participated in Duncantell's parade. Intellectual Properties Management, which represents the King family, has licensed the Heritage Society to use King's name and notified Stamps and Johnson's foundation it should cease and desist from doing the same.

Johnson claims the King family had been misinformed about the nature of the foundation. "The King family didn't have a clue as to what was happening," she maintains. "I've been to Atlanta a couple of times since then to educate them as to who we are and who we are not. They were given a lot of information that was not true, and they have a new understanding now."

A spokeswoman for the Martin Luther King Center in Atlanta says she is not familiar with either group, and that the MLK Parade Foundation had not attempted to get the cooperation or even the presence of King family members for its event. An Insider call to the licensing division of International Properties Management went unreturned.

Johnson is unimpressed with the IPM notice forbidding the foundation to use the King name. "What they are is a money-making facility which makes money off people who make money off King's stuff," she says. "That's not what we're about. We have no paid people on our board."

Johnson is equally unconcerned that her CEO, Stamps, has a criminal record including a revoked deferred adjudication for theft by check in 1986, for which he was sentenced to prison for four years. Stamps was also charged with theft of services in 1988, pleaded no contest, and received a six-year sentence. Court records indicated he was confined to Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Wynne Unit in Huntsville in 1989.

"I believe everybody ought to have a chance when they have learned lessons," says Johnson, "and I guess I may be different from other people."

Perhaps Johnson should talk to Bruce Jones, who formerly was the registered agent for Stamps's foundation -- while he was on probation for a felony conviction. Jones, unfortunately, had his probation revoked and spent time in jail for associating with a convicted felon -- one Charles Stamps.

Shilling for Ms. Sheila
According to local Democrats, President Clinton will be making a swing through Houston on January 9 that will include an appearance at a fundraiser for Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee.

 

Lee, no particular favorite of Clinton's in years past, reportedly won the perk by bucking her party's predominant sentiment and pledging support for the president on legislation giving him "fast-track" authority to negotiate trade agreements. It turned out to be a painless pledge for Lee, since Clinton, faced with sure defeat, did not push the measure to a vote in the House.

The Lee fundraiser will be hosted by developer Jenard Gross at his River Oaks home. Not only will Clinton's presence help bring in dollars for Lee's re-election campaign, but it may further reduce any chance that a serious candidate -- such as City Councilman Jew Don Boney --will step forward to challenge the congresswoman in the spring primary election.

It's Our Hearing That's Gone to Hell
Repeated playings of a tape we obtained from the Harris County Appraisal District left us convinced last week that assistant county attorney Bernardo Garcia had jokingly quipped, "That's where you go to hell" to Controller Lloyd Kelley ["And You Ask Why We Call Him Weaselboy?," December 18] during a November 25 HCAD hearing. An amused Garcia tells us he actually told Kelley, "That's where you go to 'L'," referring to a subsection of the tax code that requires a homeowner to be residing in the dwelling on the first of the year in order to claim a homestead exemption. Not to worry, Bernardo. In our opinion, either phrase would have been perfectly appropriate for the occasion.

County Criminal Court At-Law Judge James Anderson would also like all of you to know that while he did cover the court docket for three-day-weekend-loving colleague J.R. Musslewhite on several Fridays ["Judge with a Grudge," December 18], he received no similar favor in return from Musslewhite. Some of these judges are a mite touchy about their work habits.

The Insider is resting up for the New Year but can be reached at (713) 624-1483 or (713) 624-1496 (fax), or by e-mail at Insider@houstonpress.com.


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