Fort Worth area official sets up clash with new law on appraisal district employees

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Randy Armstrong, board president of the White Settlement school district on Fort Worth’s west side, says he will not step down, challenging part of a new state tax law governing employees of appraisal districts.

Armstrong is the director of residential appraisals for the Tarrant Appraisal District, which sets property values for homeowners in 21 school districts, including White Settlement, and 41 cities, including Fort Worth.

Armstrong is one of at least three elected officials identified last month by The Texas Monitor who are employed by their local appraisal districts and whose public service or livelihoods would be affected by language included in the property tax bill passed this year by the Texas Legislature.

One provision in the tax bill bans persons from working for an appraisal district if the individual also works for or is an officer of any of the local governments covered by the appraisal district. That means that members of government boards such as city councils, school boards, county commissioners courts and their employees can’t also hold a job with the local appraisal district. 

Longtime Lewisville Mayor Rudy Durham, who has worked for the Denton Central Appraisal District since 1986 and is the district’s chief appraiser, told The Texas Monitor that unless something can be worked out he plans to step down as mayor.

Durham, however, hinted that there might be a legal challenge to that provision of the tax law.

Armstrong is the first to publicly say he intends to leave neither his elected post nor his paid position with an appraisal district.

Armstrong did not return a call Monday from The Texas Monitor requesting comment. 

Desiree Coyle, a spokeswoman for White Settlement schools, said Monday that Armstrong has not decided to resign and has until the end of the year to make that call.

“The current WSISD board has agreed that under Mr. Armstrong’s leadership as board president, the district continues to improve and make great decisions for all children,” Coyle said in a statement provided to The Texas Monitor. “All trustees unanimously desire for Mr. Armstrong to continue serving on the WSISD Board of Trustees.”

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported late last week that Armstrong has no intention of quitting the board. Strictly interpreting the phrase “officer of a taxing unit” to mean the leaders of his school board, Armstrong said he believes he could step down as president and continue to serve as a board member without jeopardizing his job.

The intent of the language in the bill, originally filed by state Sen. Pat Fallon, R-Prosper, was to eliminate any conflict that might be created by an employee determining property values for an appraisal district while also in a position to control property tax rates in that appraisal district.

Fallon, who has not publicly discussed his bill, represents residents of the Denton Central Appraisal District. 

Denton’s chief appraiser was the focus of analysis pieces in 2017 by the Austin-based conservative political group Empower Texans. The group wrote that Durham’s role as mayor of Lewisville was in conflict with his day job.

Durham told The Texas Monitor his role as an administrator for the appraisal district meant he did not do actual appraisals on district taxpayers. He has recused himself from voting on budget matters that might have intersected with the appraisal district.

The City of Lewisville issued a memo saying that as mayor, Durham had never voted on the city’s property tax rate.

“I’ve been on the city council in one way or another since 1994 and there has never been a conflict of interest that I can recall,” Durham said. “At least no one has ever said to me they had a problem with it.”

At about the same time Empower Texans was bringing attention to Durham’s case, a White Settlement resident, Daniel Bennett, began tangling with Armstrong over the assessment on Bennett’s property, according to a Dallas Morning News story.

Bennett learned that Armstrong was president of the White Settlement board and that serving both districts at the same time was legal in Texas. He lobbied for a law to change it, the story said.

Armstrong, a graduate of his hometown high school, has served on the school board for 18 years. Durham, who is paid $50 a meeting as mayor, has been on the Lewisville council for 25 years.

Durham said he understands the perception of a conflict in such cases but distinguished between making a living and holding local elected office, with its long hours and nearly nonexistent compensation. Durham told The Texas Monitor he was concerned the new conflict of interest rule would further dampen interest in public service in small Texas communities.

Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].

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