Weatherford Democrat

July 27, 2011

Homeowners file suit

Judge rules out district court for tax suit involving Aledo, Willow Park residents

Judy Sheridan
Weatherford Democrat

WEATHERFORD — Judge Trey Loftin has granted a plea to the jurisdiction on behalf of local taxing entities, ruling that the 43rd District Court has no authority to hear a case involving Aledo and Willow Park homeowners claiming an illegal assessment of back taxes.

The case is a counterclaim to a lawsuit first filed in March by the City of Willow Park to collect delinquent taxes from Todd Brennan and Valerie Smith.

The counterclaim has been leveled by attorney Josh Carden on behalf of the owners of 13 properties against the cities of Willow Park and Aledo, the Parker County Appraisal District, the Parker County Appraisal Review Board and Chief Appraiser Larry Hammonds.

Loftin’s ruling has stymied efforts to expand the case to a class-action lawsuit that could represent hundreds of residents of Willow Park Village, Stone Bluff of Aledo and Fairview Addition, who were told — in 2008 ­— to pay about $300,000 in back taxes for the tax years dating from 2003 to 2007.

“All the counterclaims we’ve filed are dismissed,” Carden said, “but the good news is ... [the ruling] will accelerate the case; it is an accelerated appeal.”

Carden said he will go before the 2nd Court of Appeals in Fort Worth and, if necessary, the Supreme Court of Texas.

Fort Worth attorney Barbara Williams, representing the cities of Aledo and Willow Park along with Fort Worth firm Taylor, Olson, Adkins, Sralla & Elam, L.L.P., said that most of the residents have already paid their taxes.

She said she expected Loftin’s ruling, which she views as a victory, but said there would have been an appeal either way.

“There is a Supreme Court case on point,” she said, “that says if a taxpayer does not utilize the administrative procedures detailed in the Tax Code there is no jurisdiction.”

Loftin’s ruling fell in line with that 2006 case, Williams said, similar because taxpayers did not follow tax code procedures, which call for first lodging a protest with the Appraisal Review Board.

“They should have gone to the ARB, then filed suit in district court,” she said. “Instead, they waited until we filed suit, then used it as a defense to our suit to collect the delinquent tax.”

One of Carden’s claims is that Larry Hammonds, in his role as tax assessor/collector for the cities, didn’t operate within the bounds of the Texas Tax Code when he mailed tax bills to residents before going to the ARB.

Hammonds is being represented by Austin attorney Judith Hargrove, along with the appraisal district and appraisal review board.

“Hammonds had no authority to take that action,” Carden said. “Those were not taxes ... they were pieces of paper.”

“As a result there are cases that say that the assessor/collector is not subject to the ARB, not reviewable,” Carden said, “so the district courts have default.”

“I believe that Judge Loftin has jurisdiction because this case falls outside the regulatory framework of the tax code ­— which is normally dealt with by the Appraisal Review Board,” he said.

Williams disagrees.

“I think Mr. Hammond’s actions are totally within the bounds of the tax code,” she said. “I think he’s representing it to the letter.”

In addition to calling Hammond’s actions into account, the lawsuit alleges that the cities were not valid taxing units from 2003 to 2007 because they didn’t notify the appraisal district that their boundaries had expanded to include the three subdivisions.

It notes that the homeowners did receive and pay tax bills from the Aledo ISD and Parker County during the same time period.

Neither Carden nor Williams were willing to predict when the conflict would be resolved.

The taxing entities may view Loftin’s ruling as a victory “at this level,” Carden said, “but right now, they have won one battle in the struggle.”