Longform

Besieged by the Bay

Page 4 of 6

Explaining how CAD appraisers arrived at specific values is a tricky process, especially since every property seems to have adjustments for size, location and other factors. "It's a very complicated thing," says Daum. "Not too many people can handle it. Not too many appraisers can handle it."

This may explain why so many of the taxpayers who have complained to the CAD about their property values have come away frustrated. Jean Helton, whose family has owned 4.75 undeveloped acres on the bay since the 1940s, saw the property's value more than triple in 1997, from $225,000 to almost $700,000. When she and her son Pat went to the CAD offices for an informal meeting with an appraiser, the first of two steps in the appeal process, she was rebuffed. "He wouldn't do anything," says Helton. "He said, 'That's it.' "

Others have had more success. Jardina brought a real estate expert to his informal hearing, and his assessment was reduced to $355,540, about half that of Helton's for almost the same amount of land. CAD land supervisor Mark Meyer explained that Jardina received discounts for the size and depth of his property, plus a 30 percent "marketability" discount because "it's harder to sell anything on the water."

Asked why the property was deemed less marketable, given that Jardina had just bought it several months earlier, Meyer grew impatient. "I don't know what else to tell you," he snapped. "Any other questions?"

Jerry Daum had a different explanation. Since Jardina had only paid about $350,000 for the land, it didn't make sense to assess it for much more. But the CAD had to use the $6.50 base line figure, Daum says, so the appraiser had to justify the adjusted figure. Thus, the extra 30 percent discount. "They're using a percentage to get to the value they perceive to be right," he says.

Ed Jones, who has lived on Cliff Drive for the past 20 years and appealed his own assessment, puts it another way. "They can prove anything they want to with figures and a computer," Jones says.

As for why Jean Helton didn't get the same benefits as Jardina, Daum says that her formal appeal before the appraisal review board is yet to come, and that she may end up getting her assessment adjusted then. "Her case," says Daum, "is not resolved yet."

This is all news to Helton, who says she's heard nothing about her prospects before the review board, or even when her hearing will take place.

Whether she'll actually obtain satisfaction remains to be seen. After a similar unpleasant experience at his informal hearing, Ed Jones hoped to persuade the review board his property had been overvalued. Jones made his appearance several weeks later after his request to postpone the date was rejected. "I was unprepared," he says, and at that point the result was inevitable. "I was told to take it or leave it."

After a formal appeal before the appraisal review board, a taxpayer's only recourse is in civil court, a step beyond the reach of most San Leon and Bacliff residents. And though the CAD has made a number of small adjustments to individual properties, there's no sign of backing away from the overall increase.

The CAD is also insulated from the democratic process: Even if the taxpayers wanted to, there's almost no way to directly affect district policies. The chief appraiser answers only to the CAD board, which consists of five members chosen by the cities, towns and school districts in Galveston County. Because of the arcane manner (unique to the Galveston CAD) in which board members are selected -- by giving extra weight to school districts with big budgets -- four of the five CAD trustees also serve on area school boards, none of which include San Leon or Bacliff.

Only tax assessor-collector Chuck Wilson, who is elected countywide, can be called to account by voters. And Wilson says that practically speaking, he has little authority. "I find myself accepting the policy set by the chief appraiser," Wilson explains.

The residents' sense of helplessness has soured them on the CAD -- and on government in general -- and it's spawned a number of conspiracy theories to explain the revaluations. Some believe that the increase was ordered to counteract the property tax cap and rollback initiatives that circulated through the Legislature this spring, threatening the overall county tax base. Others think the CAD is in cahoots with developers to drive people off their land and open it up for a future casino or other massive project.

Wilson has his doubts about the hefty assessment increase in San Leon and Bacliff. A gregarious politician with a salty tongue and a penchant for self-promotion, he isn't sure there have been enough sales on the San Leon and Bacliff waterfront for the CAD to identify a trend, and he questions the fairness of doubling or tripling values on senior citizens and others on tight budgets.

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Bob Burtman