Evidence of bias found in Fort Bend home appraisal system

For years, Fort Bend County homeowners have said their appraisals were too high, and that the appeal process was stacked against them. Now there's evidence of bias in the system, and a state lawmaker wants it stopped.

"This is not what we want in Texas," says State Senator Paul Bettencourt. "We don't want this type of adversarial system that's being gamed for the government against the taxpayers."

The most recent revelation about the Fort Bend Central Appraisal District (FBCAD) has to do with bias in the binding arbitration method of appealing a high property appraisal.

"They scratched my preferred arbitrators in 2014," says Ft. Bend County resident Aaron Layman. "Lo and behold, although I recieved a token reduction in my house, I essentially lost my case."

Residents got wind there was an arbitrator "black list," and a public records request found proof.

"I said, 'Please give me a list of all the arbitrators who were blacklisted between January 1st, 2015 and the present," Steve Spearstold Fox26. "I got 42 names."

That list of names solidified who the FBCAD would reject (and two of them were the ones scratched from Layman's case.) Why would they be rejected?  At a May 10, 2016 hearing of the Texas Senate Select Committee on Proerty Tax Reform and Relief, Chief Appraiser, Glen Whitehead provided that as testimony.

"We have arbitrators, that operate in the county, that are also tax agents that represent the same clients," Whitehead said. "We also have arbitrators who showed discrimination when we go again and again with them."

Essentially the FBCAD tracked case histories, and would strike arbitrators who sided with the homeowner. The names ended up on a list which was titled "Arbitrators - Not Qualified."

Bettencourt told Whitehead on that day, that the practice had the appearance of being unfair. After seeing the list of 42 names, Bettencourt was sure of it.

"There's nothing in the code where an appraisal district can publish, basically a blacklist, that says these 42 people are somehow unqualified," Bettencourt told Fox26. "Clearly there are people on this list that are uber qualified. They've got national certifications."

Bettencourt says he has asked the Texas Attorney General's office to rule on whether FBCAD has violated any existing laws, but he's going to make sure this will be outlawed in the future.

"When we write legislation, there will be penalties for none compliance," Bettencourt said. "I think the taxpayers have had enough. They're mad and they should be mad."

Meanwhile, Spears has been notifying the arbitrators on the list, and their email responses to him are very telling.

"'I haven't been assigned a case in Fort Bend County since I ruled against them,'" Spears reads to us. "Now I know why.'"

FBCAD had its attorney, Joe Longoria, contact Fox 26 when it learned we were doing this story. Longoria did not respond to to our questions until after our story was edited. But here is the response in full:

"The list you refer is not about qualifications. It identifies arbitrators who are also tax consultants actively representing property owners before the Fort Bend County appraisal review board. Tax consultants represent property owners in adversarial proceedings involving the appraisal district before the appraisal review board. Arbitrators essentially serve as a judge in a tax arbitration. If a tax consultant also serves as an arbitrator in a tax arbitration, that is a conflict of interest or appearance of bias in favor of the property owner. I have confirmed that FBCAD stopped using or referring to the list shortly after the Senate Committee hearing in May of this year."
--Joseph T. Longoria, Perdue Brandon Fielder Collins & Mott, LLP

Now that the list has surfaced, there may be some long term fall-out from it. For example, some Fort Bend residents now might want a do-over.

"There doesn't appear to be anything that will open up an arbitration after it's done," says Bettencourt. But then he says, " No one's ever had a document like this before."