‘I think we’re sort of covering up the truth.’ Tarrant Appraisal grilled over website woes

During the Tarrant Appraisal District’s May board meeting on Friday, Information Systems Director Cal Wood said: “I need time, patience and money.”

Wood and Chief Appraiser Jeff Law were called upon to answer for TAD’s website issues after having assured the board and the public in March that the website would be ready for property tax season.

It wasn’t.

When values were released April 14, TAD.org was overwhelmed with traffic, with pages locking up, failing to download or timing out. The automated market review tool, which allows taxpayers to protest their home values online and get an immediate result — was not available until weeks after the notices were mailed.

After public outcry, including a letter from Keller Mayor Armin Mizani, Law extended the protest deadline from May 15 to May 30.

“I’m an IT person. So when I say something’s a travesty, that’s an understatement,” Thomas Bohmier said during public comment.

He explained that the new website does not allow him to pull necessary data to protest his property value; in fact, he’s getting charged for the data.

But, as Tarrant County Tax Assessor-Collector Wendy Burgess noted, providing this information is not a statutory requirement.

The new website, said Law and Wood, was launched to increase security and allow for an easier and more secure exchange of information.

They blamed the slow speed on foreign “crawlers” and automated bots — specifically from India — that were searching TAD’s public data.

“We found that in a lot of cases, if they would just refresh the page, it would come back up,” said Law.

But, board member Rich DeOtte found the explanation inadequate and said Law and Wood were downplaying the issue and incorrectly blaming many of the website troubles on user error.

“I think we’re sort of covering up the truth,” said DeOtte. “Obviously this has been a disappointing roll out, and I think we need to be truthful about that happened.”

When asked if the website was in compliance with state statute on April 14 — the day notices were mailed out — Law and Wood said yes.

Section 41.415 of the Texas tax code requires that appraisal districts that have maintained a website since 2008 must provide this service to property owners with a homestead exemption. (TAD has had a website since at least 1998).

There was no such option available on TAD.org until May 2.

“We had staff doing some of those things,” Law said about the tool that was not available online on April 14.

DeOtte’s qualms with the process and the way it was communicated did not stop there.

He also said Law sent an email to the board about the website issues. DeOtte responded to Law directly with questions. When Law answered the questions, he emailed the whole group.

DeOtte asked board counsel Matthew Tepper if the communication constitutes a violation of the Open Meetings Act, which forbids a quorum of members of a public board from discussing relevant matters outside of a scheduled meeting.

“That’s a tough question to answer,” said Tepper.

Friday’s meeting was also new board member Vince Puente’s inaugural meeting. Puente was selected by the Tarrant County Commissioners to replace former board chair Kathryn Wilemon after she was recall in a vote by Keller City Council.

Puente, co-owner and president of marketing and sales for Southwest Office Systems, serves on the Finance Commission of Texas. He was County Judge Tim O’Hare’s campaign treasurer.