House Bill 1887 and independent lawyers for ARBs

In 2011, the Texas Legislature enacted a law that prohibits the ARB in a county from using the same lawyers who represent the county’s appraisal district. More specifically, a county’s ARB may not retain a lawyer or a law firm as its legal counsel if, during the preceding year:

  • the lawyer or firm represented the county’s appraisal district, a taxing unit served by the appraisal district or a property owner who owns property in the appraisal district; and
  • that representation involved a protest, an appeal to a court, a binding arbitration, a §25.25 motion for the correction of an appraisal roll, the appointment or authority of a property owner’s agent or an appeal to the State Office of Administrative Hearings.

An ARB that has previously used the same lawyer or law firm as its related appraisal district will no longer be able to do so. The ARB will have three options:

The County Attorney. The Tax Code expressly allows an ARB to use the services of the county attorney. Some counties, however, don’t have county attorneys. In other counties, the county attorney is so busy with other responsibilities that he or she may not be able to provide prompt and efficient service to the ARB. Many county attorneys have not previously handled property-tax matters and may need time to become proficient in this area of law.

A Delinquent-Tax Lawyer. A lawyer or firm that represents taxing units in delinquent-tax cases in a county is not completely precluded from working for the county’s ARB, but the lawyer or firm will face a major obstacle. If a taxing unit’s lawyer is going to communicate withan ARB member about any matter presented or discussed in the comptroller’s ARB training course, he must do so during an ARB hearing or other ARB proceeding. If the ARB has questions about issues such as legal standards for appraisals or exemptions, hearing procedures, or other matters covered in the comptroller’s course, the lawyer cannot discuss those questions in a telephone call with the chairperson, in an e-mail or even in a formal opinion letter, unless he presents the letter at an ARB hearing or other proceeding.

An Independent Lawyer. An independent lawyer who does not represent appraisal districts, taxing units or property owners can provide any advice that an ARB might request without having to do so in a formal hearing or proceeding. He or she can provide that advice in an informal discussion, a telephone call, an e-mail or a letter. A property owner or agent will have no reason to suspect that the lawyer is steering the ARB toward the answer that will please the taxing units.

In order for an ARB to use the services of any private lawyer or law firm, the ARB will have to choose the lawyer or firm and the appraisal district’s board of directors will have to budget for the ARB’s legal needs. Of course, appraisal districts are currently operating under budgets that they adopted last fall. A district’s board of directors that has not budgeted for ARB legal services might consider simply creating a new line item and transferring some funds from elsewhere in the budget. Alternatively, the board could use the more formal budget-amendment process described in §6.06(c) of the Tax Code. A board should consult the appraisal district’s lawyers and accountants for the best way to handle this matter.