The average homeowner’s most common interaction with their area governments is through their property tax bill.
Local governments in Texas rely heavily on property taxes from property owners within their jurisdiction. In Killeen, a number of area municipalities take a slice of that tax bill each year, including the city of Killeen, the Killeen Independent School District, Bell County and more.
But for homeowners, particularly those on a fixed budget, rising property taxes can represent a serious pinch on their income — leaving some calling for a change at the Capitol in Austin.
This week, the Herald asked the two candidates for the Texas House District 54 seat — Dr. Brad Buckley, R-Salado, and Kathy Richerson, D-Bell County — for their plans to reform the state’s property tax system if they are elected Nov. 6.
For Killeen and surrounding cities, another major concern is the 100 percent disabled veteran property tax exemption, a 2009 state law that stripped millions in tax revenue from cities surrounding Fort Hood.
A continuing topic of concern is the state’s reworking of financing for school districts, a move that could seriously affect the Killeen school district and homeowners in their jurisdiction.
In addition, property owners have called for change in the practices of the Bell County Appraisal District, the countywide body tasked with appraising land and property each year. Astronomical increases in valuations for some landowners in 2017 led to calls for change in the district’s leadership.
Here’s what the candidates had to say.
The legislative priority near or at the top of every city in the vicinity of Fort Hood is the 100 percent disabled veteran property tax exemption.
Originally approved by the Texas Legislature in 2009, the exemption allows 100 percent disabled veterans approved by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to fully exempt their homesteads from local taxation.
For cities around Fort Hood, with heavy veteran populations and heavily reliant on property tax revenue, the exemption has proven to be a growing burden.
According to county figures, the number of Bell County properties free from taxation under the 100 percent disabled veteran homestead exemption has jumped from 771 parcels in 2009 to 7,403 in 2018 — a tenfold increase in nine years.
With the rise in exempt properties has been a corresponding increase in land off limits for taxation — the lifeblood of Texas cities and counties.
In 2009, $87.3 million in Bell County land value was marked untouchable. In 2018, that figure boomed to $1.27 billion.
In 2018, Killeen alone will have 4,297 homesteads exempt for 100 percent disabled veterans and their spouses. That land represents $634.6 million in exempt value — or roughly 10.8 percent of the city’s total property tax base.
The city expects to lose $4.76 million in tax revenue from the 100 percent exemption alone in fiscal 2019, before accounting for state aid the city receives to partially offset it. The state also allows tiered property tax exemptions for veterans with disabilities lower than 100 percent.
Buckley, who campaigned in part on his criticism of incumbent Rep. Scott Cosper’s inability to tackle the exemption issue, said Wednesday he would push for new legislation to require the state to close the gap that cities lose due to the state-mandated exemption.
However, he clarified that he would not support doing away with the exemption altogether, due to the help it affords veterans who sacrificed their bodies for their country.
“I support the exemption and will work tirelessly to share our story as a community that is home to a wonderful veteran population that has contributed mightily to our country and now contributes so much locally as our friends, neighbors and co-workers,” Buckley said in an email. “The 100% Disabled Veteran Property Tax Exemption is a benefit granted by the state and should be fully funded by the state. The failure to fully reimburse local counties and municipalities hinders their ability to provide the services that our benefit all citizens. Additionally, the economic health of Killeen and surrounding communities is vital to maintaining a strong Fort Hood.”
Richerson went further in her calls for state funding, saying every dime that cities lose in revenue from the exemptions should be reimbursed by the state.
“The local taxing authorities across the state affected by the 100% Veteran’s Disability exemption need to be reimbursed 100% regardless of proximity to military installation,” Richerson said in an email. “I would support legislating for this. I would never support eliminating this exemption. This is also about priorities. If you say you support veterans, then you find the money.”
While a number of area governments receive a portion of Killeen-area homeowners’ tax bills, the single largest chunk goes to the Killeen Independent School District, which recently approved a 15-cent tax rate increase to $1.21 per $100 of taxable value assessed.
While the Killeen school district continues to soak up the majority of local tax revenue, the Legislature is considering reworking its funding arrangement with state school districts by pumping more money into student programs and easing the burden on taxpayers to fund local districts.
A touted School Finance Commission created by an act of the Legislature in 2017 has not released its full list of recommendations after hearings this summer, but experts believe most of the commission’s findings will favor pumping more state money into pre-existing statewide programs.
Buckley, a former KISD trustee, said that solving the state’s property tax system begins with creating a more equitable system for school financing.
“The only way to see significant decreases in our property tax bills is to address the declining share of funding provided by the state to our school finance system,” Buckley said. “Over the last several years, the state has shifted more and more funding onto the backs of local property owners while the state’s share has decreased. The state of Texas must prioritize our public schools and increase the state’s share of funding so that local property owners can realize real tax relief.”
Richerson largely agreed that the state needed to take on a greater share of the school funding burden but disagreed with using any tax dollars to do it.
“The state needs to put back the money they took out of the budget for funding public schools,” Richerson said. “The Governor likes the idea of taking tax dollars to support private schools. The problem with this is that if you lose your public schools, you lose your community. If you don’t believe that, take a ride over to Briggs or Jonah and look at what happens to a town where there is no school. Squeezing money out of public education is not the way to balance a budget.”
While 2018 was relatively quiet, 2017 was a tumultuous year for some landowners in Harker Heights who reported astronomical increases on their annual appraisals from the Bell County Appraisal District.
The district caused a public backlash in May of that year after landowners along East Knights Way from U.S. Highway 190/Interstate 14 to Warrior’s Path in Harker Heights reported across-the-board appraisal jumps from the previous year, some as high as 5,050 percent.
Chief appraiser Marvin Hahn said at the time an alteration of “mass appraisal” tables in 2017 was undertaken to address chronic land undervaluation along certain commercial corridors throughout the county.
“If we establish that on a certain class of property we’re appraising at 85 percent, and we should be at 100 percent, then we have to make those increases in those tables,” he said. “Some of these commercial corridors have begun to expand, and sales have taken place, and we’ve kind of been behind the eight ball trying to play catch up.”
The increases led to an emotional public hearing held by the Harker Heights City Council in May 2017.
On June 24, 2017, mired in an unprecedented number of formal appraisal protests from landowners, the appraisal district announced another across-the-board appraisal review and lowered the assessed values of properties most affected by the increases by as much as $500,000.
While Cosper ran on a platform including placing a “cap” on commercial appraisal increases year-over-year, Buckley has previously taken the stance that a measure of that kind would distort the commercial market and create unintended consequences on the local economy.
On Wednesday, Buckley said he did favor legislation that would increase predictability and transparency for Texas landowners, giving them a full understanding of how their appraisals work and how they are affected by property taxes.
“Many citizens in District 54 have seen staggering increases in the appraised value of their property over the last few years,” Buckley said. “Business owners and investors cannot properly budget for expansion, new hiring and capital investment when property tax bills are so unpredictable. Homeowners cannot save, invest, pay for college education, or simply make ends meet when sky-rocketing tax bills loom in their future. I look forward to supporting appraisal reform that provides for the predictability and transparency our citizens deserve and improves the business climate for economic development, job growth, and prosperity for all citizens.”
On the other hand, Richerson said she doesn’t favor state intervention in the county appraisal district and favored the district’s leaders taking it upon themselves to be more transparent.
“The head of the local tax district is an elected position. If they believe they need to rework their plans, I would support them,” Richerson said. “Austin hasn’t even done an effective job of managing the state budget. They certainly have no business interfering in local government.”
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