Austin City Council may reaffirm commitment to property appraisal suit

Nearly a month after a state district judge dismissed the city’s property appraisal lawsuit, the Austin City Council will consider a resolution expressing “its continued support of legal actions” in the case.

Council Member Kathie Tovo is the lead sponsor of the resolution on the agenda for the council’s specially called meeting on Thursday. Mayor Steve Adler, as well as Council Members Don Zimmerman and Ann Kitchen, are co-sponsoring the resolution.

Judge Tim Sulak, who dismissed the lawsuit Nov. 6, said he wanted to get the case “teed up squarely for the court of appeals.”

The lawsuit sought the reappraisal of thousands of commercial and vacant land properties in Travis County. It also aimed to strike down the “equal and uniform” provisions in state law that allow a property’s value to be reduced to the median of comparable appraisals.

The city’s Law Department, which has in-house attorneys handling the lawsuit, said through a city spokesman the “council may give direction on where they want to go next” in the litigation at Thursday’s meeting.

Adler said he thinks city lawyers should file a motion for a new trial, which he said means the court could reconsider its decision and the city could “reissue” or “re-couch” its arguments, though he said the arguments the city made in its lawsuit were “sound.”

Such a motion would also mean the city has 90 days to file a notice of appeal rather than 30 days after a judgment.

Tovo said she couldn’t comment on the city’s legal strategy but said she thinks the council has “multiple options ahead of us.”

She said a past council resolution, which directed the city manager to file a petition challenging commercial and vacant land appraisals, already green-lighted action and that her resolution “doesn’t direct new action” but “just reiterates council support for taking actions (legal and otherwise) necessary to ensuring a fair and equitable system of taxation.”

The resolution is also meant to clarify the council’s intent in pursuing legal action, Tovo said.

“We’re seeking to arrive at a fair and equitable balance, not to increase the city’s revenue, which is one concern we’ve heard out there in the public,” Tovo said.

The council voted unanimously to file the challenge petition in May. Tovo said she would expect the same result with the upcoming resolution if a full council was present at the meeting, but said at least three of her colleagues will be absent from Thursday’s meeting.

Attorney Lorri Michel, who represented a commercial property owner seeking to have the city lawsuit thrown out, said the city shouldn’t waste any more time on the suit.

“I think enough is enough, and I think the city needs to get on with the business of running the city,” Michel said.

Top state officials, including Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who intervened in the lawsuit, have lauded Sulak’s decision to dismiss the case. Interest groups such as the Real Estate Council of Austin have urged the city not to pursue further legal action.

“The City of Austin’s ill-conceived lawsuit ignored the fact that higher commercial property taxes would also be paid by Austin’s working families – through higher rents, higher prices and lower wages,” the Real Estate Council said in a statement earlier this month. “It would be in the community’s best interest if the city does the right thing and opts not to appeal this decision.”

In part, the lawsuit argued that properties weren’t being valued equally, as some are appraised based on market values and others are appraised based on a median of comparable properties. That system especially benefits commercial properties, which are undervalued, the lawsuit said.

“The Austin City Council believes it is in the unfortunate position of having to use litigation, a tool of last resort, due to years of legislative inaction and a growing public perception of a lack of fairness in the appraisal system,” the proposed resolution says.

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