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Anatomy of an Appraisal Protest

By Stephen Webster
Investigative Reporter

On May 22, Jeff Low received notice that his homestead exemption, the only protection a taxpayer has against large increases in value, had been removed from part of his property. As of May 31, he has not received a notice of appraisal, unlike every other home owner in the county. However, website records show that his value went up 29 percent in one year; from $214,320 to $272,167 – an increase of $57,847. And just like the last five years, he is filing a protest.

Last year, Jeff staged a campaign for a seat on the DCAD’s Board of Directors. He tirelessly wrote letters to legislators, made appearances before the Commissioners Court, and spoke in front of school boards and city councils in an effort to obtain the votes from the taxing entities necessary to oversee the district’s Chief Appraiser, Joe Rogers.

Initially, he had a shot. Since the board is not publicly elected he had to lobby officials, and earned the early support of the Commissioners Court. Or so he thought. When it came down to the wire, the court cut him out of the race, adjusting their votes just so, eliminating him from the running by less than 10 votes. This time, he says, he’s the subject of direct harassment; a charge the appraisal district vehemently denies.

Walking into the district’s offices, a friendly woman named Swany Agular asked if she could be of any assistance. Low requested to see an appraiser, and asked if she could find out if the district had sent out his appraisal letter yet. She placed a phone call to her supervisor, then came back saying it had been sent that morning. Low was given a number and told to wait an hour.

The office was full of taxpayers seeking to protest their new appraisal. They had set up a series of waiting rooms through the halls. This reporter counted five uniformed police officers meandering around the entrance, public access computers and hearing rooms. After an hour and a half Low’s number was up, and he made his way into the office of appraiser Deborah Rasmussen.

“How can I help you today?” she asked.

“Well, you can maybe explain why I haven’t gotten my appraisal notice yet, and why my homestead cap has been removed when the [appraisal review board] made your office apply it to my full property last year.”

She sighed again and adjusted her glasses, pecking away at her keyboard. “You didn’t get a notice of value?”

“Nope,” said Jeff.

“Hm. Let me see … Okay,” she said. “It looks like your notice actually … Oh, it has not gone out yet. That’s weird.”

“Yeah. Especially because the girl in the front told me it went out today,” snapped Low.

“Oh, um, I don’t know about that. Maybe she misspoke,” said Rasmussen. “So, you want to homestead the whole property?”

“It was homesteaded. Last year,” said Jeff. “Every year for the last five years you guys have played with my exemption and this is the first time I’ve ever gotten notice of it before the protest deadline.”

“Oh. Oh yes. I see,” she said. “Uh, I removed your homestead.”

“Can you tell me why?” asked Jeff.

“Yes. Ah … Because the law requires that you maintain it and landscape it as a yard,” she replied.

“It’s mowed. I keep it up nicely,” said Jeff. Just hours earlier Low had taken this reporter to his home to pick up some related paperwork. His assessment of the lawn is indeed true.

“I drove past it earlier today, Mr. Low. It wasn’t mowed,” said Rasmussen. “I’m very familiar with your lawn. I drove by your house on my way back from lunch.”

“Well, I’ll go home and take a picture, just to prove you wrong,” said Jeff.

“Actually, that is all up to the appraiser,” she said. “And, um, it’s not really maintained as home, ah, yard. And the building on it is a commercial class building. So that would not be something that we would allow under a homestead either.”

However, Low does not own a business, nor is there any commercial activity on his property at all. Rasmussen was referring to his metal storage shed, which Low has fought with the district about for years. In 1997 he owned a cabinet shop, housed in this particular structure. But he closed it not even a year later, and has since used it as a garage and personal storage shed.

“Look, we’re obviously not getting anywhere with this,” said Jeff. “Could I just speak with your supervisor?”

Rasmussen frowned. “Okay. Please come out front with me.”

Walking back to the front of the building, she stopped near the public access area, queering the district’s network in an effort to print some of Jeff’s property data. “Just a minute. I’ll be right back. I’m going to get someone to help you,” she said. She returned about 20 minutes later holding an appraisal card.

“Mr. Low, [Chief and Deputy Chief Appraisers] Mr. Rogers and Mr. Durham are out to lunch. They will be back any moment,” she claimed. “They left at 2 p.m., and it is three now, so they’ll be here soon. I’ll go and find another appraiser in the mean time. Maybe someone else could assist you.” Rasmussen never returned, and nobody else came to assist Low. Shortly after she departed, the district’s network stopped functioning altogether, much to the ire of the taxpayers spending most of their work day researching their properties in the public access area.

At 3:43 p.m., Rogers and Durham finally arrived. “Mr. Low, I understand you want to see me,” said Rogers.

“Yep, that’s right. Hey Steve,” said Jeff, motioning for me to join him.

“Oh, uh. No. No, I don’t need him,” said Rogers, eyeing this reporter warily.

“Too bad,” said Jeff with a grin.

They walked into a large office and sat on opposite sides of a round table. Rogers, a short, wide, excitable-looking fellow, crossed his arms over his belly and narrowed his eyes at Jeff.

“I’ve come today because I didn’t receive a notice of value,” began Low.

“Oh, you didn’t?” asked Rogers. “Well, we mailed ‘em all.”

“The girl in the front said that it was mailed today,” said Low.

“Not to my knowledge,” replied Rogers. “We mailed personal property notices today. No real estate. You didn’t have any personal property.”

“I didn’t think so,” said Low. “I asked for my notice earlier so I could get a date that I need to file my protest by. Well, Ms. Rasmussen disappeared a while ago and she ain’t come back. She said she would get someone to help me and she just vanished.”

“Well, I’ll look into that for you,” said Rogers. “What else is bothering you?”

“Well,” said Low, “I also lost my homestead again.”

“I told you last year,” said Rogers. “I don’t think you deserve a homestead cap on that building of yours. It shouldn’t have been done last year. I made that statement from the very beginning that the ARB made a mistake when they gave you a homestead on that commercial building. … We can raise property more than 10 percent if we want to. We’ll raise it to whatever we think market value is.”

“Maybe you ought to try doing that to some of the local politicians,” said Low.

“We do it to everybody, sir,” retorted Rogers. “We treat everybody the same way.”

“I don’t think so,” said Low. “I’ve pulled records for countless …” Rogers cut him off.

“Its all in your mind. We don’t single anybody out or anything like what you think. You’re just mad at the world and you don’t know what to do with yourself. … We appraise the same way Dallas does.”

“I would like to know how the average politician and the average employee of this district rec …”

Rogers cut him off again. “They don’t. They don’t. That’s all in your mind. You’re wrong and I can’t explain it to you. I tried last year to explain it to you but you didn’t believe a word I said. But you’re wrong. Just wrong. That’s a fact.”

“Has your property, in the last five years, gone up 155-200 percent?” asked Low.

“Nope,” said Rogers. “Mine was at market value, and it went up according to the market. It’s gone up, but it hasn’t gone up that much. Ninety-nine percent of the people probably haven’t gone up that much, but if they weren’t at market then they did. I’m sure there’s some that have gone up more than that ‘cause they weren’t at market. With mass appraisal, it is easy to miss something. It is easy to leave something out. Then, when you find it, you correct it. You know that,” he concluded, leveling his index finger at Jeff.

“Look, Mr. Rogers,” said Low. “Ms. Rasmussen said the reason my homestead was removed was because my grass wasn’t mowed.” Rogers cocked his head back and grinned. “Ms. Rasmussen doesn’t know,” he said.

“She told me she is very familiar with my property,” claimed Low.

“Ms. Rasmussen doesn’t even appraise agricultural property. She is a residential appraiser,” said Rogers, failing to note that Low has no agriculture on his land, nor was that the issue at hand. “If she said that, she misspoke,” said Rogers. “She doesn’t appraise agricultural property. She looks at houses. I think you need to look at yourself for once,” said Rogers.

“The problem is, I’m being singled out,” said Low, to which Rogers quickly replied, “No you’re not. You are not being singled out. Didn’t you say last year your property was worth more than $300,000? You did, didn’t you? You said that to the Commissioners Court.”

Jeff looked confused, shaking his head. “I never said anything like that!”

Rogers chuckled. “Yes, you did.”

“No I didn’t,” said Low.

“Yes.”

“No.”

“Yes.”

“No.”

They went on like this for about two minutes. It should be noted that The News Connection has Low’s appearances before the commissioners on audio, and at no point did he claim his property was worth over $300,000.

You know,” said Low, “I presented a lot of stuff to you last year, and I …”

“No you didn’t,” said Rogers, cutting him off again. “The stuff you presented wasn’t even worth looking at. There was nothing wrong with those properties.”

“You mean to tell me that one of my neighbors is at $8,000 an acre and I’m up over $63,000?”

“There was nothing wrong,” said Rogers. “Nothing at all. It’s all in your mind, Mr. Low. You’re just mad at the world.”

Finally, Low gave up. “There is no point talking to you, Joe! I hope you don’t treat everyone like this!”

“Well, I’m done talking to you too,” said Rogers. “Just get out of my office, right now.”

This reporter stuck a hand up. “May I ask a question? I mean, I just came to observe, but I’m curious about one thing.”

Rogers paused, looked down and sighed. “What’s that?”

I referenced an article published by TNC on Dec. 16, 2005, revealing the two chiefs at the district had accrued nearly $26,000 of illegal paid vacation time; time the Department of Labor and the district’s own policies and procedures handbook claimed they are not eligible for.

“What ever happened to all that compensatory time you and Mr. Durham racked up?” I kept a straight face.

Rogers, clearly annoyed by this question, swatted at the air with his right hand, keeping his left hand crossed over his belly. “Bah. That was from the 1980’s, and, uh, I also sent you a copy of the manual that said you could get that time …”

I cut him off. “Actually, it said you couldn’t.”

“Oh no it didn’t! said Rogers, his face growing increasingly red. “It said you could!”

“I spoke with the Texas Auditor’s Office, and the Department of Labor,” I replied. “You are not allowed that time.”

“Well, you read what ever you want to read. I’ve read all your articles. You just say what you want to say and do what you want to do and you make things look however you want ‘em to look. So it was done. I’m through with it! Out! Let’s go!”

I stood and took two steps toward the door, eyeing Jeff as he stood in the hallway laughing to himself. “I’m really sorry, Mr. Rogers. I didn’t mean to …”

“Yeah, you are sorry,” he said. “You’re real sorry, you …”

“Well, I don’t mean I’m sorry,” I said. “I mean, I did not intend to agitate you so much …”

Rogers’ eyes widened and he took four large steps toward me, grasping his door by its side. His breathing had become much more rapid; his face, a darkening shade of pink.

“Get out. Get out now before I have a police man take you out! Go!”

“Um, okay,” I said. “I didn’t know I was causing any trouble.”

“Yes. Yes you are,” he said, slamming the door behind us.

Tax appraisal protest season is upon the taxpayers of Denton County, and our lawmakers are missing.

“Thanks a lot, Governor Perry,” said Low as he left the district’s office. “A tax cut without reform is meaningless. They cut taxes on the surface, and then just raise the values up before it even goes into effect. Hell of a lot of help it is to me. Meaningless. Simply meaningless. I hope people don’t fall for it.”

The tax appraisal protest season is upon Denton County homeowners, and their lawmakers are missing. To share your story of unfair, illogical, or otherwise illegal appraisal, contact Bob Weir, TNC’s Executive Editor at bobweir@thenewsconnection.com.

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