Texas Fertilizer Explosion Victims in No Mood to Pay Property Taxes

PHOTO: The home of Tommy Muska, mayor of West, Texas, including his back French doors, pictured, were damaged by the blast from a fertilizer plant on April 17, 2013.
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After a fertilizer plant explosion destroyed part of a small city last month, the leaders of West, Texas, find themselves in the difficult financial position of having to collect property taxes from residents whose homes were destroyed.

No one is more conflicted than West Mayor Tommy Muska, whose home was partially damaged by the blast at West Fertilizer Co. outside Waco April 17 that killed 15 people. And while 55-year-old mayor understands the need to collect revenue, he can identify with the frustatration of homeowners who're facing an expensive repair of their property.

"It's a double-edged sword," Muska said. "I'm a taxpayer as well. I clearly don't want to pay taxes on a house that's been damaged like mine's been damaged."

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Because appraisal values of homes are assessed on Jan. 1 for school, town and county property taxes, even homeowners with property closest to the plant explosion will get a bill.

But residents can submit a protest of their appraised values postmarked by May 31 to the McClennan County Appraisal District, which evaluates and exempts homes from property taxes, as first reported by the Waco Tribune. They might be able to argue their case with the Appraisal Review Board, which is a group of citizens who listen to evidence and make a ruling.

"Some of these people have no home at all," Mayor Muska said. "Is it fair or not fair? That's going to have to come from the local tax appraisal district or comptroller."

It has been a hectic past few weeks for Muska, an insurance agent and the part-time mayor.

"Unfortunately, this month I've been a full-time mayor," he joked.

Muska, a life-long resident of West, lives in a home that was valued at $351,284 last year, but might cost $300,000 to repair. The back of his home faced the fertilizer plant.

The blast destroyed the doors and windows and sheetrock fell into multiple rooms.

"It's not as much personal property damage as others. I'm very blessed," said Muska, who lives about three or four blocks from the blast site.

Some of the home repair will be covered by insurance.

"I'm in the insurance business," Muska said, when asked whether he had purchased insurance for his home. "I have insurance."

Muska's property taxes are about $9,000 a year.

"As a mayor and as the guardian, so to speak, of the funds, we are going to need that revenue, which is about a third of our budget next year," Muska said. "If we don't have that, we are going to be strapped."

But even if the town is strapped financially, Muska said the community will make do. He calls the city council "very fiscally conservative."

"If we have to, we will tighten our belts," he said.

The average home value in West is $104,000, and the city counts about 2,800 people, according to the 2010 Census.

Homeowners pay about $2,000 on average a year in property taxes, according to Andrew Hahn Jr., the chief appraiser of McLennan County Appraisal District.

"There's not much we can do," Hahn said of the property taxes from damaged homes.

In the event of a natural disaster, there is a reappraisal for property damage. But the explosion was not a natural disaster.

"It's just a sad situation for everyone. We hope they get their lives back together," Hahn said.

In Hahn's office, several people were affected by the tragedy, including an appraiser who lost his home and those who personally know people killed in the blast.

Muska said he submitted a request to challenge the appraisal, but he will follow whatever the appraisal body decides.

"I'll be honest with you," he said. "I hope they accept my protest. If they don't, I'll pay it."

Muska hopes the state will offer additional aid, as the economic effects of displaced residents ripple through the community.

"We're going to move forward," he added, "in my personal home as well as the city."

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