The Tarrant Appraisal District is bracing for more challenges in 2017 as it attempts to correct deficiencies in its computer software and accurately appraise property values in a surging real estate market.
TAD’s operations have been plagued by problems since it rolled out its Aumentum software in 2014. The problems nearly cost school districts in Tarrant County to lose some state aid because of undervaluation of property in 2015.
Then, Tarrant County commissioners had to step in last fall to temporarily cover $7 million in refunds due taxpayers because of the software problems that failed to detect changes to accounts.
Results of an audit report commissioned by the TAD board last year to determine the extent of the software problems revealed myriad problems, including insufficient testing before rolling out the system in October 2014.
The audit report, conducted by the accounting firm of Weaver and Tidwell, found that about 50 broad requirements of the system were still unmet last October. That was down from about 110 broad requirements at the time of rollout.
The report is critical of TAD and software manufacturer Thomson Reuters, which inherited the contract for creating the system from Manatron. TAD contracted with Manatron in 2011 and Thomson Reuters acquired Manatron in 2012.
As a result of the acquisition, Thomson Reuters replaced Manatron’s Government Revenue Management software system with Aumentum.
Auditors reported that they held more than 100 meetings, interviewed more than 50 people and reviewed more than 950 documents to evaluate the system and its operation from design to project management to decision-making and testing.
Also, auditors reported limited cooperation from Thomson Reuters throughout the process.
“It’s clear that the software should never have been released,” said Ron Wright, Tarrant County tax assessor-collector and a non-voting member of the TAD board. His office must work closely with TAD. “It’s been disaster after disaster.”
The TAD board received the audit report in December and took no action. Wright said it is expected to discuss the findings at its meeting in January.
“I can assure anyone who asks that the board and staff are diligently working to add the issues identified in the Weaver report that impact future performance,” TAD board President Joe Potthoff said in an email.
Despite the problems, Potthoff said, there are already signs of improvement.
“The system and communications are already much improved over last year but only actual positive performance will be satisfactory to the board,” he stated.
TAD Chief Appraiser Jeff Law acknowledged that conversion of a 34-year-old mainframe computer system to a more contemporary operating system “did not go as we had hoped.”
Furthermore, an upgrade to the system last March created a setback, Law said.
“We did have problems reporting data to the tax office for the months of April, May and June,” Law said in an email. “We worked hard with Thomson Reuters and the tax office to address and resolve issues Thomson Reuters’ upgrade created.”
As of Sept. 15, 2016 TAD had paid $1,136,540.42 for the Aumentum system and $489,823.04 for professional services. The original budget was for $1,155,044 for the software and $259,885 per year, according to the audit report.
TAD has withheld $805,806.58 in payments to Thomson Reuters as a result of the problems and was reimbursed $793,936 by Thomson Reuters for a 12-month delay in startup.
“TAD relied on Thomson Reuters’ expertise in providing product implementation,” Law stated in the email. “Moreover, TAD has held Thomson Reuters accountable throughout this whole process.”
He said that TAD has created an information technology transition team to analyze and review upgrades to make sure the system functions reliably.
Also, TAD has stepped up its communication with taxing entities and Wright’s office to keep everyone informed about changes and problems as well as to answer questions, Law stated.
Wright, who has been an outspoken critic of the software system, said problems persisted throughout last year, including a supplemental tax roll requiring refunds issued by TAD in November that was “a huge mess with hundreds of errors.”
Wright also said appraisals of mineral accounts were still incomplete at the end of the year, which could result in more refunds.
But TAD is catching up on final tax orders resulting from protest hearings, Wright said. Property tax payments are due by Jan. 31 regardless of the status of protests.
Complicating the problems for TAD during the past year was a huge surge in property values, which resulted in an average 14 percent increase for most property owners, with homeowners being particularly hard-hit.
For the 2016 appraisal year, TAD “reappraised over 1.6 million property accounts, processed more than 70,000 ownership changes, produced more than 500,000 appraisal notices, and received and processed more than 103,000 value-related protests, which represent 6.4 percent of the taxable properties,” Law stated.
Based on data research, TAD officials are expecting property appraisals to climb again this year.