Assessed (Taxes) and Obsessed (Birds)

Texas and Property Taxes

Every year in Texas, we enter what property owners like to call The Protest Pain. From the moment the appraisal arrives in the mail early spring, with its new-and-usually-higher valuation (and resulting tax estimation), blood pressures rise and the game is on.

This year, we did things a little differently.

Texas is not an income tax state:  we’re a property tax state. Sports players and their million-dollar salaries like to set up ‘home properties’ here to protect their precious income and pay a lower property tax on their homestead in its place; it’s a great way to work state income tax system.

Most people don’t choose to earn less money in order to pay fewer taxes (income based). In Texas, you either buy less stuff (avoiding the sales tax) or reduce your burden all at once by buying a smaller home on a smaller lot, valued a lot less.

Texas generates a big portion of its annual ‘income’ (the majority of which is for school districts) by appraising properties and collecting taxes based on what is known as ‘market conditions.’ As the economy is still booming here post-recession, our state boasts some of the highest property taxes in the country.

Appraisals are capped by law at 10%, and ours capped for the second year straight. With that ceiling, tax on a moderate $250,000 property will jump from $10,000 to $11,000 in a year. That’s an additional $85/month off the household budget. Straight to taxes.

For many people, it’s just too much. A greater tax base is certainly a win-win for state and ISD entities, but the jury is still out on how it may be forcing people out of their paid-for homes for which they can no longer afford the tax on it.

Recently, the flood of out-of-state buyers moving to the area has created a bubble in Houston. They inadvertently raise the virtual ‘market value’ in an effort to avoid the heftier capital gains tax on their previous home sale, where a similar home is valued much higher. They can afford to pay more than they need to, and get more house to boot. It is the perfect recipe for inflating a local housing market. It’s not looking to settle out just yet.

Protesting property appraisal in Texas may be a ‘right,’ but it’s by no means cut-and-dry. It starts with a filing a letter of intent, followed by hours of sales/appraisal research compared with your property. Comps and equity. There may be long waits at the county appraisal office which can be a long drive. The whole thing ends — if you’re one of the lucky ones — with an exhausting presentation before the ARB (Appraisal Review Board). They don’t make it easy to reschedule either, scheduling your hearing right smack dab in the middle of your summer vacation. I have missed some this way.

If it gets as far as the ARB, odds are stacked in their favor; this board of ‘peers’ has all the necessary figures at their fingertips with no incentive to compromise. Some people even hire outside firms to do the dirty work for them (for a fee).

It’s no wonder most people accept the inflating value of their home. Death and taxes, right? I protest not to save money but out of obligation to the process, much like voting in an election whose candidates are not ‘mine.’ Neither result in much payment for all the trouble put in. But it’s all I’ve got.

Just like my teen’s feet, home values
just keep getting bigger and bigger.

Early this month when the kids were all testing for school, I tried a different approach: I became something of a gnat. The gnat is tiny and slow. The gnat is steady and persistent. The gnat gets deep into the ears and eyes of its victim, making it want to escape.

Hours of number-crunching and comp-comparisons would be required, so I got straight to work after receiving sales comps from the appraiser. It was through that process I discovered a discrepancy between sales and appraisal figures. This could help my case (my spreadsheet showed me, alarmingly), so I armed myself with a folder of numbers and waited in line to see an appraiser for the second time.

Visits to the appraisal district may be inconvenient, but face-to-face works best for math. The appraisers are patient with genuine folks on the other side of the desk looking only to understand how it works. Inconsistencies take time to correct, and though they appreciated the insight, adjusting numbers on comps is…well, complicated.

By the third visit, I brought four children who had just finished the year’s state testing in tow and were eager to start their summer somewhere other than an appraisal office. One gnat quickly turned into five. The appraiser was patient.

Rather than spend the time required to fix the errors on the list, she traded the offending comps for new onesones which I readily offered up as replacements (I already did my homework). When the numbers re-crunched, the resulting valuation adjusted downward by a whopping 25%We shook hands, signed documents, and I was on my way. No need to see the board.

A gnat can make a bull move.

Beach and Birds Obsession

When we ask the kids where they want to go for their time off at the end of school, the answer is resounding and unanimous: to the beach!

As Galveston tends to be both crowded and pricey, we ride the ferry across to Port Bolivar instead. It’s a quaint little country town where rentals are mixed in with real live year-round residents, where golf carts troll up and down the beach looking for washed up treasures, where dogs walk their people on slow, long leashes. There is exactly one grocery store and one do-nut shop and a whole lot of time to just sit and think.

Our kind of place.

With the weather uncertainties on the Gulf Coast, it wasn’t looking like a good week to beach it, but a rental is a rental, so we arrived in the rain behind a pretty significant inland thunderstorm.

Wet Arrival

The ‘Big Slow-down’
The Youngest Dotes on Dad

The good thing about storms is that the amazing surf almost always follows! Jump in the waves is really all the kids wanted to do anyway.

Post-storm Surf

Coastal Walk at Sunset

While the kids romped and played, Mom and Dad read and relaxed on the empty beach, enjoying the sun and quiet. Only the occasional kite-surfer would break up the action as vacationing masses wouldn’t be crowding this beach for a couple of weeks yet.

The locals were all busy readying the place for a more rowdy Memorial Day weekend, picking up trash and generally cleaning up the beach from tidal crud. Ecotourism and fishing is the market economy of this small town, and the amount of plastics and waste that wash up with the daily tides is astounding. Gotta tidy up to keep those rentals full.

Wind surfer…coming through!

Wave Diving!
(If you don’t see an animated GIF of Ginny
diving into a wave, view it on a browser instead.)

Surf Birding

Like this time last year, one of the first species we ‘wished’ for to add to our annual count was Magnificent Frigatebird. To see one of these, it’s mostly about just being in one spot and always keeping an eye out for any big bird circling about the coastline.

It’s a whole lot of, ‘Nah…pelican. Nah…another pelican.‘ And there are a lot of Brown Pelicans on the Texas Gulf Coast. Not that they’re disappointing to watch, it’s just that friggin’ frigates are less common, and we only get the opportunity to see one during short stays like this.

It’s all we wanted for the day.

Somewhere around the umpteenth pelican in the middle of the first day, Scott finally saw her, circling high in the sky. As I was lucky enough to have the big bird lens tucked away in the bag next to my chair on the beach, I was able to rattle off a decent shot in the harshly back-lit sky before she disappeared from our view. It was our only sighting for the whole week.

Right place, right time. Bing!

Magnificent Frigatebird

How Magnificent!
Magnificent Frigatebird

Ruddy Turnstone

Squeaky, Rubber What Shoe?
Ruddy Turnstone

Rock Dove

Lovey Dovey
Rock Dove (Pigeon)

Bolivar Flats – Shorebird Sanctuary

Worn out from surf jumping and sun exposure, the kids were content to lay around and watch the crap on Cartoon Network at the rental while Dad and I made a short drive to our favorite UTC Hotspot — Bolivar Flats Bird Sanctuary — to see what we could see.

Thankfully, the sand had been previously been drenched by the storm and was sticking to the ground (rather than blowing in our faces), so the big lens came out for some much desired birdie portraiture.

Common Nighthawk

Common Nighthawk
Snoozing by the Roadside

American Oystercatcher

American Oystercatcher
This one is banded!

Sanderling

Not Too Afraid Of A Camera
Sanderling

Least Tern

Least Tern
Nesting/Mating Display (Feeding)

The birding highlight of the trip was the Barn Owl discovered later on (at home from photos taken, on the desktop) to be in the nesting in the lone box in the grasses (go ahead…see if you can see him too). I’m sure he’s a regular; he’s probably the same one that was hunting at dusk during our honeymoon trip some weeks back.

A special note for amateur bird photographers:

  • It pays to snap a few decently exposed photos of unknowns and hope for a better ID later. When looking for details in a dark hole such as this owl-in-a-box, particularly against a brightly back-lit sky, use spot-focus and slightly over-expose the image by increasing the ISO or slowing the shutter or — in my case — both (600mm @ 7.1/f, 400 ISO, 1/500 sec).
  • Learn how to use your digital SLR in ‘manual’ mode at home with the instructions and know how to address changes on the fly with finger/thumb without taking your face off the viewfinder.
  • Try to take pictures so that you don’t have to post-process later. Sure, Photoshop will blend and lighten and sharpen all but the worst images, but if you work to get that in the field first, you can save time later by not doing any of it. (Like me.)

On the last day, we added the Dickcissel as he was singing his song along the exit road, a lifer for both of us. In the field lens, it appeared to be another Eastern Meadowlark, but his song made us want to get better looks. Good thing we did!

Never underestimate the value of the mobile bird blind (a/k/a your car) and patience when ID’ing a bird for the first time. You can see the uncropped picture of him here. He’s a cutie pie!

Reddish Egret

Reddish Egret
Coastal Show Stopper

American Avocet

All Dressed Up
American Avocet

Related Links:

To see more bird photos, click on any
of the images or go to the album at SmugMug.

242 different bird species tallied so far this year.

Welcome, Summer!

13 thoughts on “Assessed (Taxes) and Obsessed (Birds)

  1. Gotta love it when you have to pay taxes, but someone like Jerry Jones gets his property tax for the Cowboys stadium waived. Using tax payer money to fund stadiums and giving write-offs like that are why I quit watching football all together (sorry, didn’t mean to go off on a small tangent!).

    Now, onto the most important things: Your photos are stunning….the terns, the Sanderling, the oystercatcher, and that turnstone!!! I had to go back and look at the Sanderling again – what great details, you can really see the beautiful colors in the feathers. Dang, I love me some shorebirds 😀

    Like

  2. How interesting about Texas tax, had no idea it was like that!
    I’m jealous of those waves at the beach, I haven’t seen much surf like that in a couple of years!
    I heard a story about a couple of Brown Pelicans making their way up here a few years back…I’d love to see one someday! Beautiful photos, looks like you had a great time.

    Like

    1. Brown Pelicans have come back from the brink, so I’m careful not to dismiss them so. I hope you get to witness the grandeur of a flock soaring effortlessly next to your car as you drive along a coastal road. Fun!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. You’d love Bolivar, Sonya, and your grandkids would especially enjoy the ferry ride across. As for taxes, don’t think of it as a fight. Think of it as a strong convincing in your favor. Good luck!

      Like

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