Tarrant appraisal board candidates talk cybersecurity, fair appraisals | #hacking | #cybersecurity | #infosec | #comptia | #pentest | #ransomware

The Tarrant Appraisal District must do better by taxpayers.

That’s the message candidates for the appraisal district’s board of directors had for voters ahead of the May 4 election.

Candidates at a forum co-hosted by the Fort Worth Report and the League of Women Voters discussed ongoing problems with the district’s cybersecurity, educating taxpayers about the appraisal process, and ensuring accountability and transparency. 

Historically, appraisal board members have been elected by taxing entities. But a November constitutional amendment created three new at-large positions, to be elected by the public. 

Residents may vote for one person from each at-large race. Click the links below to find what each candidate had to say about their vision for the appraisal district.

Place 1 forum

Place 2 forum

Place 3 forum

Place 1

Eric Morris, Sayeda Bilqees Syed and Trae Fowler are running for Place 1. 

All three candidates agreed there’s a need for greater taxpayer education when it comes to appraisals and how to protest them. 

Morris, a Haltom City council member, suggested the district use social media to spread information about the protest process. Syed, a Colleyville resident, said she’d push for town halls to educate people about their rights and how to file for homestead exemptions. Fowler, a Haltom City resident and former council member, said he’d implement a three-part educational series for taxpayers, starting when they receive their appraisal and continuing through their protest. 

Left to right: Sayeda Bilqees Syed, Trae Fowler and Eric Morris speak at a forum cohosted by the League of Women Voters and the Fort Worth Report April 17, 2024 at Texas A&M University School of Law. (Camilo Diaz | Fort Worth Report)

But candidates differed on specific policies — and their legality. Morris and Fowler both said they want to further tighten the cap on appraisals of residential properties. Right now, residents with a homestead exemption can’t see their property’s appraised value increase more than 10% year to year. 

Morris recommended a 1% to 2% cap, while Fowler recommended a 2% to 5% cap. 

“That’s closer to your cost-of-living increases,” Fowler said. “…That’s still an increase to all of us as property owners, but I think it’s more manageable. I think that’s more reasonable.” 

Syed, who previously served on the appraisal review board, agreed that an adjustment to the cap is needed, but said the Texas Legislature would have to make the change. She’s committed to taking a plan to state legislators to cap increases at 1% to 2% per year. 

“I have a plan for our county and not only Tarrant County, but the rest of the 253 (appraisal districts) in the state of Texas,” she said.

Fowler and Morris also said they want to limit appraisals to every two or three years, respectively. 

“So you’re not going to get your blue (appraisal) letters in the mail every April like some of y’all did today,” Morris joked to the audience. 

Syed again argued that such a change would need to be taken up by legislators first, citing section 41.41 of the property tax code. Proponents of a schedule change pointed to tax code section 25.18, which requires appraisals at least once every three years. 

Morris also suggested a policy change requiring appraisal district staff to physically look at certain older properties before appraising them. Right now, he said, a computer system is making those determinations.

Fowler and Syed both pointed to problems with the comparable figures the appraisal district currently uses and suggested an overhaul of that process. Syed said while on the appraisal review board, she’d seen multiple instances where the appraisal district used the highest comparable property evaluations when making appraisals.

Place 2 

Callie Rigney and Eric B. Crile are running for Place 2. Rigney did not attend the forum, and Crile was offered five minutes to explain his platform and why he’s running for the position. 

Crile, a firefighter and Fort Worth resident, said he wants to change the culture of the appraisal district. There’s been progress on that front with the election of new board members and the hiring of a new chief appraiser, he said, but a more complete change will take time. 

Eric B. Crile speaks at a forum cohosted by the League of Women Voters and the Fort Worth Report April 17, 2024 at Texas A&M University School of Law. (Camilo Diaz | Fort Worth Report)

He said he wants taxpayers to know what approach the appraisal district takes when it comes to valuations. Increasing the education budget of the district should be a priority, Crile said. 

He also said he’d want to set up workshops, where residents can learn more about appraisals and how to protest. Data used in appraisals should be public to all, he said. 

“They should be doing whatever’s in the best interest of the taxpayer, not the taxing entity,” he said. 

He referenced endorsements made by County Judge Tim O’Hare, and the concerns about election influence they sparked. O’Hare has endorsed Crile’s opponent, Rigney, as well as Morris in Place 1 and Bryant in Place 3.

“It’s a nonpartisan race. Partisan politics has gotten involved,” Crile said. “I don’t care what your political leanings are — red, blue, yellow, green, purple — whatever you want to do. I’m only here to advocate on behalf of the taxpayer.”

Place 3

Chuck Kelley, Lee Henderson and Matt Bryant are running for Place 3. 

Each candidate emphasized the importance of improving cybersecurity at the appraisal district. The hacker group Medusa launched a ransomware attack against the district last month, and later released taxpayer information online. 

Kelley, a Colleyville council member who works in information technology, said the security breaches are a matter of cascading failures. It will require a root cause analysis to figure out how to improve moving forward, he said.

Bryant, a real estate investor in Tarrant County, said his previous experience as an engineer means following processes and being data driven comes naturally to him. He suggested looking at the cybersecurity methods used by other similarly sized appraisal districts.

Henderson, a public policy strategist and former software engineer, said he won’t pretend he has all of the information about the cybersecurity incidents, but the board can make immediate changes to update cybersecurity contracts and clean up the problem.

Left to right: Chuck Kelley, Lee Henderson and Matt Bryant speak at a forum cohosted by the League of Women Voters and the Fort Worth Report April 17, 2024 at Texas A&M University School of Law. (Camilo Diaz | Fort Worth Report)

The candidates also offered several other policy suggestions. Bryant said he would work to cap appraisal increases on homestead properties at 5%, and move the district to a triannual appraisal schedule.

“I think capping increases at 5% would reduce some of the chaos that’s going on right now,” he said. “When I say chaos — the valuations are escalating at an alarming rate.” 

Kelley said he would change the structure of the appraisal district board meetings to allow public comment on every item on the agenda, one at a time. He’d have staff provide presentations to ensure people have information about what’s being voted on. 

“I’ll be honest, I have sat and listened to people talk to me while I’ve been on council, and I’ve changed my mind because they gave me good information,” he said. “That doesn’t happen at TAD.”

All three candidates pushed for more transparency around appraisal processes, including the data and formulas used. Henderson said he’d also prioritize making residents comfortable with the district.

“It’s not very friendly right now to go talk to TAD through that glass window at the desk and inside the appraisal review board hearings,” he said. “A lot of people are very, very intimidated.”

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