Speaking Wednesday to real estate professionals in a candidate forum, Bexar County judge hopefuls Trish DeBerry and Peter Sakai laid out different approaches to address rising property tax bills.

Both agreed that the county’s next leader needs to do more to keep tax bills in check, even though much of the power to do so lies in the hands of the state Legislature. Current county leadership maxed out the homestead exemption earlier this year.

But Sakai, a Democrat, took aim at the county appraisal district, which determines property valuations, and on which DeBerry still holds a seat representing the commissioners court.

DeBerry, a Republican, was the Precinct 3 commissioner before launching her campaign for county judge. She said any solution will require partnering with the GOP-led state Legislature, and touted her connections with Republican state leaders.

“I have had conversations with the leadership at the state level about ‘What do we do?'” said DeBerry.

She plans to ask state leaders to look at legislation to add a property tax exemption for people whose homes have been in the family for multiple generations. The City of San Antonio also plans to lobby the Legislature for such a change, though it hasn’t gotten much traction in past sessions.

“We’ve got to make sure that we bring that back up and we get it passed,” said DeBerry, who noted that the Democrat-led city and county have little leverage to solve the problem on their own. “We’ve got to take it to the Lege. I’m happy to fight that good fight, and we’re going to get it done.”

Sakai, a former family court judge, said he would also push for property tax solutions in Austin, but wants an audit of the Bexar County Appraisal District. Michael Amezquita is the chief appraiser for Bexar County, reporting to state comptroller Glenn Hegar, a Republican.

Property tax valuations on single-family houses rose by an average of almost 28% this year, according to the Bexar Appraisal District. 

“The appraisal district is an arm of the comptroller,” Sakai said.

“Obviously, with the county representative on the [appraisal] board, we have a say as to who is the leader and what that leader is doing,” said Sakai. “We need to hold the board accountable” and dig into the “analytics of what the appraisal district is doing.”

DeBerry defended her work on the appraisal board, saying she “asked tough questions at that board every single day.” She also called for making the chief appraiser an elected position, instead of appointed by the state comptroller.

Though the county leadership is dominated by Democrats, Wednesday’s crowd at the Petroleum Club was a friendly audience for DeBerry, made up of real estate brokers, developers and attorneys.

“It’s no secret that the real estate industry has supported you in the past, but you took everybody by surprise, people who were candidly counting on you to stay on the commissioner’s court,” said moderator Brad Carson, an attorney for Kruger Carson PLLC. “Tell us how we can trust you as judge.”

DeBerry defended her last-minute decision to jump in the judge’s race and played up her plans to encourage real estate and economic development, such as relocating the county jail to repurpose the land near downtown.

“We need to use every tool in the toolbox” to attract new businesses and industry, said DeBerry, adding that she supports using tax abatements to lure potential employers. “We haven’t replaced AT&T in 20 years. … Toyota is the biggest one that’s been here. We need a big win, and some of that comes from tax incentives.”

Bexar County just tripled its contribution to Greater:SATX, which works to recruit big employers to San Antonio, in its $2.9 billion budget for the coming fiscal year.

Sakai said he would leave the jail where it is — a perspective that is shared by the sheriff’s jail auditor. He also talked up his endorsements from the rest of the Democrats on the commissioners court, including retiring County Judge Nelson Wolff, and said he plans to continue development initiatives the court has started, such as the San Pedro Creek project.

Sakai laid out a vision for the county that includes working with businesses to create employment opportunities for young people.

“We need the business community to partner with our public school system so that our kids, when they finish public school, have a skill set,” said Sakai.

“That’s my expertise as [the family court] judge,” he added. I will “bring over to county judge how we can fill your labor issues, because that is the biggest issue out there right now.”

Andrea Drusch writes about local government for the San Antonio Report. She's covered politics in Washington, D.C., and Texas for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, National Journal and Politico.