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Table 3 Angelina County Average ratio of assessor’s value to Single market family value residences Agri cultural land Hudson ISD 19.9% 24.1% 8.7% Lufkin ISD 25.6% 32.7% 10.9% Huntington ISD 12.4% 32.6% 5.2% Diboll ISD 23.1% 28.5% 7.0% Zavalla ISD 15.1% 17.5% 0.2% Central ISD 14.1% 17.0% 6.0% Hardin County Kountze ISD 42.9% 32.0% 47.0% Silsbee ISD 48.8% 45.0% 35.0% Hardin-Jefferson ISD 55.3% 50.0% 50.0% Lumberton ISD 66.9% 68.0% 77.4% West HardinlSD 33.6% 24.0% 18.0% Jasper County Brookeland ISD 17.0% 20.0% 10.0% Buna ISD 28.0% 35.7% 16.6% Jasper ISD 34.1% 38.0% 24.0% Kirbyville ISD 40.6% 50.0% 24.0% Evadale ISD 25.0% 15.0% 12.0% Newton County Burkeville ISD 16.4% 18.0% 14.0% Newton ISD 31.5% 48.6% 25.0% Deweyville ISD 45.0% 37.0% 29.0% Sabine County Hemphill ISD 14.6% 18.4% 5.0% West Sabine ISD 15.2% 16.0% 8.0% San Augustine County San Augustine ISD 14.8% 5.6% 19.9% Broaddus ISD 9.1% 9.0% 4.0% Tyler County Colmesneil ISD 22.1% 20.0% 18.0% Woodville ISD 43.0% 54.0% 36.0% Warren ISD 48.6% 40.0% 39.0% Spurger ISD 30.2% 25.1% 29.0% Chester ISD 24.2% 25.0% 16.0% One reason why homes are assessed at a higher rate is that it’s easier to determine their market value than to find the market value of timberland. But some local officials admit that timber companies actively discourage attempts to revalue their holdings. “It’s always the same story,” said one school tax assessor-collector who asked not to be named. “If you decide to revalue their property, they’ll bury you. They’ll take you to court and bankrupt you.” The threat of a lengthy, costly lawsuit hangs over virtually every local government that considers revaluing timberland, and it is a threat that has been carried out more than once. “As a rule, counties and school districts in East Texas are taken to court whenever they make a mass tax reappraisal,” says W. R. Owens, a former professor of forestry at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches who is now an independent appraiser and has testified as an expert witness in many such tax challenges. Major property owners challenging revaluation in concert strengthen their hand by withholding the disputed tax pay Table 4 Current valuation of forest County acreage Taxes collected Taxes if reappraised at $200 per acre Difference Angelina $ 60 $ 81,405 $263,250 $181,845 Hardin 85 169,967 417,803 247,836 Jasper 100 78,464 156,928 78,464 Newton 100 197,120 394,240 197,120 Sabine 100 28,560 57,120 28,560 San Augustine 38 30,951 165,072 134,121 Tyler 150 329,696 421,774 92,078 $916,163 $1,876,187 $959,584 * Keep in mind that $200 per acre is a very conservative figure, and it is the average appraisal of timber acreage employed by one of the most recently reappraised school districts in the region, the Kountze Independent School District. ments. Although delinquent tax charges mount up, it may take, several years for a taxing authority to win court orders to collect those fines. Even a few months without tax revenue from the timber companies can put considerable pressure on a school district or county at loggerheads with its largest taxpayers. Often, as with the Spurger Independent School District in 1972 and the San Augustine Independent School District in 1975, school boards simply buckle under and sign out-of-court settlements that roll back the controversial reappraisals. It’s a process an Angelina County school official referred to, with considerable understatement, as “reaching a mediocre agreement with your landowners.” One school system that has succeeded in revaluing its timberland is the Kountze Independent School District in Hardin County. In 1976, school officials there won a two-year court battle to raise the valuation of commercial forest land in the Kountze ISD from $75 per acre to an average of about $200 per acre. “Our taxes on timber are still real low,” says Harold Willis, tax assessor-collector for the Kountze school system. “We established a market value of about $475 per acre for timberland by expert testimony in court, and you can’t buy land in Hardin County for less than $1,500 per acre,” he adds. The district was helped during its two-year legal battle by a court order directing the protesting landowners to pay taxes based on the old valuations until the case was settled. According to Bill Hoffman, the timber companies have played only a minor role in such tax reappraisal suits. “Where you have those lawsuits is where a lot of landowners get disgusted with a revaluation, not just the timber companies,” he says. “It’s like a small California,” claims Hoffman, alluding to the ferment over high property tax assessments in that state that led to Proposition 13. However, Jack McCreary, president of Southwestern Appraisal Company of Austin, has a different opinion; individual landowners may join such tax suits, “but that’s because the timber companies play Darrell Royal football and get someone else to carry the ball.” When tax challenge hearings are held before boards of equalization or in court, he reports, the lead counsel for the complaining landowners is most often from one of the firms on retainer to the timber companies. THE TEXAS OBSERVER 9