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County appraisal board elections were set for a Saturday in early May as a way to insulate the newly created elected positions from partisan rancor.

In Harris County, politics and suspicion are creeping into the three races anyway.

The county Democratic and Republican parties have endorsed and are campaigning for candidates in each of the three races. Accusations of nefarious intentions on the part of conservatives are being leveled by local Democrats jaded by years of state meddling in Houston and Harris County’s governments.

“The appraisal process has worked well. There was no demonstrated need for this,” Harris County Democratic Party Chair Mike Doyle said. “I don’t buy the argument this was simply intended to give the public more input.”

At issue are the elections for three positions on the Harris County Appraisal District’s nine-member board of directors, the governing body of the agency that determines annual property values used by local taxing entities to set their property tax rates and budgets.

The elected positions were created as part of a sweeping constitutional amendment aimed at lowering property taxes approved by voters statewide in November.

The last sentence of the November measure created four-year terms for three appraisal board positions in the state’s 50 counties with a population larger than 75,000. Until now, all members have been appointed by the local taxing entities represented by the district.

The change to appraisal boards in the Houston region also apply to Liberty, Montgomery, Galveston, Brazoria and Fort Bend counties, although Galveston County has canceled its election because not enough candidates filed to run for the posts.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, called the bipartisan legislation he authored that led to the elections “good public policy,” dismissing concerns raised by some. He argues that creating the three elected positions will make appraisal districts more responsive to citizen concerns.

“If people had a conspiracy theory, they could have expressed it in the committee hearings, but they did not,” Bettencourt said.

Veto powers for elected board members

Board members do not make decisions on property values, the issue that most often causes residents to butt heads with their appraisal districts, Bettencourt said.

The three elected board members, however, will have added sway over appointments to appraisal review boards, the bodies that do hear citizen requests for a reevaluation of their property’s appraisal.

Under the new system OK’d by voters, at least two of the elected members must approve any appointment to the review board, essentially giving two aligned board members the ability to veto any appointment.

By creating the elected positions, the appraisal board is politicized by default, said Hunt County Chief Appraiser Brent South, who chairs the Texas Association of Appraisal District’s legislative committee.

South said he is concerned elected board members with an anti-tax agenda or distaste for the appraisal review process could veto any appointment to the appraisal review board in perpetuity.

“It could kill an appraisal review board,” South said. “I see that as taking away a right from the citizens to protest their appraisal and have an input in this process.”

Bettencourt acknowledged the possibility, but said it was unlikely. The legislature is committed to reviewing the changes to appraisal boards and reworking the law as needed in the years to come, he said.

As partisan campaigning heats up around the races, Bettencourt said the legislature made every effort to insulate the elections from that pressure. The two political parties are free to do as they like, he added.

Low voter turnout expected

While Harris Democrats oppose the elections, dozens of canvassers have been activated to campaign for Democratic-aligned candidates, Doyle said.

Democrats are not endorsing one candidate for each seat, instead encouraging voters to support any of seven candidates: Kathy Blueford-Daniels, Janice W. Hines, Melissa Noriega, Jevon German, Austin Pooley, James Bill and Pelumi Adeleke.

For its part, the Harris County GOP has thrown its weight behind three conservative candidates – Bill Frazer, Kyle Scott and Ericka McCrutcheon – and organized a block walk for them on Saturday.

“Anytime you have people who are elected and responsible directly to the voters and the taxpayers, that’s a positive thing versus an appointee or a bureaucrat,” Harris County Republican Party Chair Cindy Siegel said.

The sudden change to the board’s makeup, the expected low turnout and perceived lack of justification for the elections have convinced Doyle this is another example of state Republican leadership’s interference in the local control of Texas’ Democratic cities and counties.

“I haven’t seen any evidence to demonstrate this is being done for the reasons claimed,” Doyle said.

Citing the state’s takeover of Houston ISD last year, a recent law that abolished Harris County’s elections administrator’s office and the so-called “Death Star” law aimed at blocking cities from enacting progressive policy, Doyle said Houstonians have no reason to trust policy from the Republican-led Legislature.

Siegel expressed confidence in the conservative candidates' chances in the elections and called Doyle’s concerns an “excuse.”

The elections were set for early May as an attempt to ensure they would be nonpartisan positions, and that the elections could be held quickly after the constitutional amendment was approved last November, Bettencourt said.

That decision has raised concerns that few voters are even aware the countywide elections are happening, and has saddled the appraisal district with a massive bill to administer the election and a likely runoff on June 15. Thirteen candidates are running for the three seats, and a candidate must receive 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff election.

District stuck with steep price tag for election

The appraisal district already has approved $4.1 million for the Harris County Clerk to administer the election on its behalf. Because the June runoffs will be the only elections held on that day, the appraisal district likely will need to pay even more for the runoff to be administered, according to the clerk’s office. 

Like Doyle, Siegel said she is concerned about how few people are aware of the elections and how much they will cost the appraisal district.

Siegel said she has been fielding calls from precinct chairs who are confusing the May 4 appraisal district elections with the May 28 Democratic and Republican primary runoffs, as well as voters who are unsure what the board positions do.

Siegel said she believed voters’ confusion would diminish over time as the appraisal district elections become a regular occurrence.

While Harris County will see contested elections for each of the three seats, that is not the case in many of the counties now required to elect appraisal board members.

Roughly half of the 50 counties required to hold the appraisal board elections have canceled their elections because not enough people filed to run for the seats, according to data collected by South.

In the Houston area, Galveston County canceled its appraisal district elections because only one person filed for each of the three seats. The three candidates will now join the board without facing voters.

Terms for the elected board members will begin July 1 and last until July 31, 2026, according to state law.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misstated the date for a potential runoff election.

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Paul Cobler covers politics for the Abdelraoufsinno. Paul returns to Texas after covering city hall for The Advocate in Baton Rouge. During two-and-a-half years at the newspaper, he spearheaded local accountability...