A recent audit found almost 200 cases of falsified or erroneous homestead exemptions on properties in Gregg County, saving schools, cities and other local governments $474,000.

So far, audits of Gregg County Appraisal District records have recovered almost $1 million for local entities this year, Chief Appraiser Libby Neely said.

The appraisal district’s board of directors accepted results from the homestead exemption audit Tuesday during a regular meeting in which members also approved the agency’s 2019-20 budget.

Attorney Jim Lambeth with the Linebarger Goggan Blair and Sampson law firm audited residential property accounts in Gregg County that had homestead exemptions, which removes part of a residential property’s value from taxation. That lowers how much the homeowner pays in property taxes.

Of the 24,853 accounts with homestead exemptions, the audit removed 189 accounts, Neely said. Of those removals, the audit discovered the homeowner had died in 66 cases, there were 60 cases in which the homeowner claimed exemptions at multiple properties, and there were 63 cases in which the owner didn’t live at the residence where the exemption was being claimed.

“Attorneys performing the audit “have little methods that (county appraisers) don’t to use such as driver’s licenses and Social Security numbers to see if people have applied for homestead exemptions in multiple locations,” Neely said. “They can look out of state. We don’t have the resources for that.”

In most if not all cases, the property owner paid back taxes for each year that the exemption was unlawfully used plus fees that can range as high as 50% of the back taxes or more.

“This costs you money. They penalize the fire out of you for having a duplicate homestead,” Neely said.

The audit’s results come four months after the Gregg County Appraisal District returned about $514,000 to local entities after a financial audit of the district’s 2018 budget discovered overages in its operating reserves.

The homestead exemption audit resulted in $474,567 in revenue, with the largest savings being about $179,000 to Longview ISD, $50,600 to Pine Tree $49,500 to Gregg County and $43,500 to White Oak ISD.

“I think that’s very good that we had less than 1% that they found out of almost 25,000 properties,” Neely said, noting that attorneys went into the audit thinking that about 2% of homestead exemptions would be falsified or erroneous or intentionally duplicated.

Appraisal district directors also approved a $2.82 million 2019-20 budget. It represents a $76,000, or 2.7%, spending increase from this year.

The appraisal district is funded entirely through proceeds from the cities, school districts, emergency or other special districts, Kilgore College and Gregg County that depend on the entity to determine taxable property values.

Within the 2019-20 budget, the agency’s 30 employees received a pay raise of between 2% and 3%, Neely said. However, the payroll burden that includes employee benefits remained flat mostly because health insurance continues to see a $15,000-a-year reduction in cost.

“We’ve found some (consultants) that do some really good research for us to find good plans for us,” she said, “and our employees choose from what plans they want.”