Texas Property Tax: The Big Picture

Introduction

This month, we will take an in-depth look at property taxation in Texas. The property tax is the most important source of revenue for Texas cities, accounting for almost half of municipal revenues. The property tax is the primary local revenue source for local school districts. This time of year, property owners will receive their appraisals from their local central appraisal districts’ (CADs.) A certified tax roll will be delivered to local governments in July. That tax roll will be used by city councils, school boards, county commissioner’s courts and various special districts to set property tax rates for the upcoming budget year. This week, we will provide a high-level review of property taxation in Texas for local leaders. In following weeks, we will examine trends in property tax based and rates in the DFW area and methods for forecasting property tax revenues.

History of Property Tax in Texas

Josh Haney provides an interesting history of the property tax in Texas. This tax, in place since before Texas independence was a huge source of both state and local revenue. For much of early statehood it amounted to more than half of state revenues. With local responsibility for administration, tax appraisals varied wildly from community to community. A standardized system, that ended state use of the property tax, also created the local appraisal districts in 1982. This gave us the current form of property taxation still in place today, though numerous statutory and constitutional changes have refined it.

Tax Year Cycle

The property tax cycle can be divided into four phases. Appraisal districts are required to appraise properties based on their value as of January 1 each year. CADs generally complete this process by the end of April and notify property owners of their appraisals. The CAD will also provide local jurisdictions with this preliminary information by the end of April so cities, counties, school districts and special districts can draft their budgets for the following year. This information informs decisions for operating and capital budgeting. Next, property owners can protest their appraisals. Appraisal review boards will complete these disputes by July. CADs must provide local taxing jurisdictions with a certified property tax base roll by July 25th. This value will be used by local governments to finalize budget preparation and set a tax rate. Local governments must set this tax rate after approving the budget and before September 30. The final phase of the tax year begins on October 1 when tax bills are mailed to property owners. Payment is delinquent on February 1 the following calendar year.

Truth in Taxation: Effective Tax Rate and Roll-Back Rate

The concept of truth in taxation, embodied in the Texas Constitution and state law essentially permits taxpayers to assess their property tax burden and influence the local political process that sets budgets and tax rates. The effective tax rate and the roll-back rate are important concepts under truth in taxation.

The effective tax rate is a hypothetical tax rate that would bring in the exact same amount of revenue as collected by local government in the previous year. This rate can change from year-to-year because it depends on changes in appraised values of existing property. If previously existing property appraisals are higher, then the effective tax rate will be lower than last year’s official tax rate. If property appraisals have fallen, such as during a recession, then the effective tax rate will be higher than last year’s official tax rate. The rate is calculated by excluding the value of new real estate constructed during the previous year.

The roll-back rate is a buffer to growth in property taxes that can be implemented by local taxpayers. It reflects the maximum tax increase a city government can adopt for its upcoming budget year without risking a roll-back election. According to the Texas Municipal League, there are half a dozen roll-back elections annually and a small majority are successful in rolling back the tax rate. The roll-back at the time of this writing is 108 percent of the effective tax rate. That means, that a city council can chose to adopt a property tax rate that is equal to or less than its effective tax rate without risk of a roll-back election. Rates set above 108 percent of the effective rate can trigger a citizen petition to call a roll-back election. Proposed legislation in the 2017 Texas Legislative Session would change the roll-back rate to 104 percent and make a roll-back election mandatory, without a petition.

In addition to excluding newly constructed property from the calculations, the effective and roll-back rates only apply to the portion of the tax rate that supports general government operations. The fraction of the tax rate that supports debt service (called interest and sinking or I&S) is not subject to the roll-back provision.

Statewide Trends in Property Values

Property taxes are generally calculated at the local level, by appraisal districts, for each taxing jurisdiction in the state. Changes in property tax bases can vary dramatically from community to community depending on local economic conditions. Given the overall importance of the property tax to local governments, we would like to have some baseline to easily compare tax base performance across the state. The Texas Comptroller provides us with a reasonable metric. It is charged with evaluating the appraisals made by local CADs for all the independent school districts in the state. The primary purpose of the property value survey is to support calculation of state funding formulas for K-12 education. It is not comprehensive, but provides some details to study statewide property tax base trends.

Based on these reports, between 2011 and 2016, the total taxable value of real and personal property in Texas grew 32 percent from $1.7 trillion to over $2.2 trillion. The annual increase was relatively consistent each year at over 5 percent. By comparison, for single-family homes, the statewide total has grown by 39 percent over the same period. Home property values, presented an increasing growth rate in recent years. This seems to reflect home price increases we have seen throughout the state. Annual increases in the last three years have exceeded 9 percent. Next week we will expand our analysis and take a closer look at DFW cities.

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