Possible COVID restrictions and “unreasonable” property appraisals filled a County Commissioners’ meeting lasting four-plus hours July 13.
Pct. 2 beverage sale petitions
Commissioner Tom Moser announced, as the meeting started, that volunteers were successful in collecting the necessary 2,016 signatures and more, as of Monday morning, to get the question on the Nov. 3 General Election Ballot to allow alcoholic beverage sales in that precinct.
He said the petitions collected by July 17 would be delivered to election officials for verification of all signatures, and in the meantime he and volunteers would continue to collect more signatures.
Once sufficient petition signatures are verified, the question comes to commissioners, to consider passing a court order to put the question on the upcoming ballot.
Possible closure, HCYEC
Commissioners heard from 10 citizens on the proposed agenda item to “consider … action to close the Hill Country Youth Event Center for all events, except for health and safety or governmental events.”
County Judge Robert Kelly said this came to court discussion because, under COVID-19 conditions, a large Quinceañera was booked at the facility with a large attendance, perhaps the maximum 500 people expected, and plans for food and drink and therefore probable lack of social distancing.
What commissioners got Monday was 10 people making public comments, mostly from 4-H youth and parent volunteers. No one from the family party/renters was there to speak.
County Attorney Heather Stebbins spoke first, calling this upcoming event “a powder keg” with the possibility of no county insurance coverage depending on the commissioners’ actions.
Kelly said, if they intentionally disregard Gov. Abbott’s proclamations about large gatherings, the question then is about insurance coverage from Texas Association of Counties.
Stebbins said the state rules allow gatherings up to 500 people, while TAC says, “We don’t know, concerning masks and willful disregard.”
She and Kelly said even if party guests wear masks and stay 6 feet apart, it’s a large gathering with eating and drinking. And even if they stress that with the “renters,” how can it be enforced?
Sheriff Rusty Hierholzer said it’s not enforceable.
Stebbins suggested after a previous conversation with Commissioner Jonathan Letz, the county limit attendance and not allow alcoholic beverages.
Hierholzer said security for such events is an off-duty job when approved in advance, and it’s not approved for his officers for this particular event.
Amber Burrus, an H-E-B pharmacist and 4-H parent, first asked if the next public flu clinic still could be held there; and commissioners said yes. She said she’s very torn between being a health professional and a parent. A closure would severely limit 4-H but the kids would miss those experiences.
Hall family members came next, starting with Makenna and one sister, who said the HCYEC is the only place big enough to meet with social distancing. And they don’t want to have the annual 4-H Awards Ceremony on Aug. 1 cancelled; and become one more of many things they should have and wanted to experience. She called the center and its activities “essential.”
Nathaniel Hall and two of his brothers said they need the HCYEC to keep 4-H programs alive, including the planned STEM Camp this week. “Limping along is no way to keep the programs thriving,” Nathaniel said. “We’ve salvaged what competitions we could.”
Father Roger Hall said he’s a parent volunteer asked them to support the youth and not to close the center.
Mother Teri Hall said the HCYEC is “integral to our activities” and that 4-H is covered under 4-H insurance, and won’t be a liability.
Youth Peter Lockwood, an eighth grader, said he raises lambs and was recently elected president of the East Kerr 4-H Club. “Please vote against closure.”
Nyiali Swicker, the incoming president of the Kerr County 4-H Club, said she feels there are ways to compromise about activities without compromising health and safety. She called the Event Center her “second home.”
Angela Fiedler, an Ag Extension agent and 4-H parent, said the adult office staff asked families to speak at this meeting; and asked commissioners to consider the educational programs.
She said 4-H has liability coverage; and that the STEM Camp has 300 youth registered, with the HCYEC the only place they can social distance.
Harris said they already have hoops to jump through and he doesn’t want to make them any smaller nor more restrictive.
Moser said presently 50 percent occupancy is allowed; and he was considering risk versus benefits. “In my thinking, benefits outweigh the risks. Keep it open per the governor’s order.”
Moser moved they adhere to the 50-percent occupancy at the Event Center for all events. The vote was Belew, Moser and Harris “for” and Kelly “against.”
Letz was absent and listening by phone to the meeting.
KCAD, 2020 appraised values
Next were two lengthy related items with multiple speakers on increased appraised property values in Kerr County; and a discussion with Kerr Central Appraisal District representatives on the “how” and “why.”
Larry Priour, manager of a family-owned 85,000 acres, said he was protesting “unreasonably high property appraisals” that increased by more than 47 percent from $60/acre to $88/acre, higher than any county around Kerr. And he questioned notifications in May two months into the Coronavirus shutdown.
“I hoped for compassion and fairness this year from the KCAD. There are more and more ranches out of production , and some have been sold,” he said. “There’s no profit. My appraisal is up $3,250 over last year.”
Priour said the appraisal district staff said the State Comptroller told them to do this; and then put up legal barriers for him to see the surveys, that some information had to be confidential.
“The data needs to be verified. I’m asking the commissioners to reduce the county tax rate so our bills will be the same as last year.”
Thomas Wallace said his ranch and home has been in his family since 1857, raising Angus cattle now, and his property appraisal increased 48 percent to $88/acre. He said he understood about 1,000 surveys were distributed to rural property owners but only 30 percent (less than one-third) returned completed.
“I have no confidence in those responses or accuracy. And land is not automatically more productive,” he said, noting a difference between “conservation land and agricultural productivity.”
Louis Strohacker, fifth-generation owner of a ranch here since 1900, noted the volatile history of livestock prices, saying they are no higher now than 10 years ago in a Texas drought. Ranchers’ profit and loss statements are affected largely by quality of their land and rainfall; and influenced by regulations, animal predators and human invaders.
Julius Neunhoffer, another fifth-generation rancher with his brother, said KCAD didn’t consider fence maintenance and replacement, continually clearing cedar and other brush, predator problems, labor, and feed. And, he said, Kerr County has about half the former head-count of Whitetail Deer now.
Another man said his value increased 300 percent overnight, and the arbitrary value is unjustified. “My land is valued at what a person would pay for it,” he said; comparable values are useless and no one has been to see him in person to discuss this.
Mike Matheny, owner of a residence at Cottage on the River on .008 acre, said his appraisal increased 1,300 percent to $1,750,000/acre.
He asked the court to send a resolution to KCAD because of the pandemic and unemployment, to freeze values at 2019 levels until the end of the pandemic. And if that can’t be done, the county should hold the new budget at 2019 levels.
Jim Howard said his parents lived here, and he bought property at Hunt on the River in 2018, a fraction of an acre that’s increased in value from $10,000 to $30,000 to $140,000 with a townhouse.
“The pandemic is not reflected in the appraisals,” he said.
William Murphy said he’s owned property here since 1975, and this year is his first time to protest, after his appraisal rose 1,300 percent over two years. He also cited no back-up information; and asked county leaders to freeze all budgeting at 2019 levels until the pandemic ends.
Commissioners’ reactions at this point were a thumbs-up for a resolution, the pandemic is an issue, and the KCAD needs to explain the process of ag valuations.
Chief Appraiser Sharon Constantanides, from a ranching family herself, introduced attorney Carla Osborn from Austin and ag appraiser Annie Egglefield.
Osborn has worked at state level on property values, including ag land. She said the State Comptroller’s “Productivity Information” surveys are aimed at guiding school funding across the state, including ag land and its impact on school budgets.
She said Kerr CAD sent figures to Austin for 2018 on 471,000-plus properties valued at $59.62/acre or $28.1 million. And the Comptroller disagreed, saying the value should be 10 percent higher at $67/acre.
For 2019, the report of 445,328 acres had an average value of $60/acre; and the Comptroller said it should be $77/acre, an increase of 23 percent. She said 2019 values are to be certified in 2020 for the school districts, who get state funds in addition to local taxes; and her list is divided by school districts including Kerr’s.
The state comptroller asks for the number of and responses to surveys, to make a Kerr “recap.”
They also emphasized repeatedly that for each tax year, the state property tax code uses a five-year average of a specified set of years, this year 2014-18. The years 2019 and 2020 values are not even being looked at yet. So no values or numbers from this pandemic time are part of the computations.
Osborn said for 2019 and the state’s numbers on “native pastures,” gross income and leases grazing rate are part of the figures.
“In the Hill Country, hunting income is part of the total gross income. Then expenses include taxes, fencing as shown on surveys, well water, management costs (a percentage of gross income), brush control, and hunting lease licenses, but not everybody is registered with that program,” Osborn said.
Commissioners (especially Moser) protested that state officials creating and working this system are not themselves affected by local increases.
Constantinides said as chief appraiser, she must follow the state’s Property Tax Code; and that surveys are sent to owners for responses and tallies of changes in hunting leases and grazing rights.
The Comptroller sends the survey to chief appraisers, ag agents and others to distribute, she said; and when responses return, their compared answers become “data” in Austin.
“2020 is not to be looked at until 2022 per the Property Tax Code,” she said.
She said Kerr County Tax Assessor Bob Reeves told her associates and entities sent letters requesting an altered process and called Gov. Greg Abbott’s office; and got “No” in answer.
When she repeated the specific five-year average computations, Moser protested again, calling it “not even reasonable, wrong and no way!” She again said properties have to be appraised as of Jan. 1 values, Moser said the process has to be more reasonable. She said it’s based on sales information given to KCAD, and they have to follow the state code.
Moser and Constantinides went back and forth on her following state code and his demand for a more reasonable process, until Kelly stopped them both. Moser apologized, but repeated it’s still a 47-percent increase over 2019-20.
Constantinides said she sent 900-plus surveys and got about 200 back, in her world a “fairly good return.’”
Asked about protests by propertyowners this year, they said just under 4,000 officially protested; and they’ve certified or settled all but about 8 percent.
“We have to resolve at least 95 percent by July 25,” she said. “If we don’t, the Appraisal Review Board certifies preliminary values to school districts after making decisions on the remaining cases one way or the other. After that the owner or citizen only can appeal.”
One speaker asked again for more information to explain his appraisal, and the ladies told him some of their information must be confidential and they can’t send it out. Commissioners didn’t vote after this discussion.
Center Point youth new
Texas FFA president
Commissioner Don Harris announced Blake Mills of Center Point has been elected president of the Texas Future Farmers of America (FFA) organization for youth; and will be foregoing a year of college to travel the state to meet with FFA groups.
He called it a great honor for Mills and for Kerr County.