The Chambers County Commissioners Court approved a resolution to exploit the disaster declaration “loophole,” operating as if the voter-approval rate is the old eight percent as opposed to the new 3.5 percent under Senate Bill 2 (SB 2).
The resolution asserts that due to the governor’s statewide declaration, the mechanism in SB 2 which allows cities and counties to increase the property tax rate eight percent in the year that a disaster was triggered.
It was not a declaratory motion on the tax rate itself, just affirming from which point of reference the county will operate. The county did not provide the approved resolution by the time of publishing.
The county brought in nearly $57 million in property tax revenues last year. The median homeowner’s 2019 county bill was about $600.
Rep. Mayes Middleton (R-Wallisville) sent out an email to constituents warning of the prospective increase.
“Please make your voice heard, demand this resolution be rescinded and the county adopt the NO NEW REVENUE RATE (0% tax increase). People are hurting from the shutdowns and raising taxes at this time is fundamentally wrong,” wrote Middleton.
Middleton’s colleague, Rep. Dustin Burrows (R-Lubbock), tweeted later on Wednesday that the Chambers County Commissioners Court had decided against not only increasing property taxes above the SB 2 limit, but against raising them at all, instead opting to adopt the “no-new-revenue rate,” previously known as the effective rate.
A spokesman from Chambers County Judge Jimmy Sylvia told The Texan, “The driving factor in this decision is that we must do our best to reduce any unnecessary financial burden on our citizens as we all cope with COVID-19.”
A debate over the “loophole” has been raging since April when it became apparent the statute is somewhat ambiguous on the question. The law states that cities and counties that have a disaster declared, with the exception of drought, in their area have their voter-approval rate moved to eight percent. However, the intention of the legislature was that the loophole be available for entities hurt by natural disasters.
Various state GOP leaders have drawn their line in the sand, stressing that the provision only applies to physical and not economic damage such as what’s occurred from the pandemic.
The chief architects in the state legislature of SB 2, Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) and Burrows, outlined last week their plan to discourage the exploitation of the loophole — namely highlighting the transparency tools available to voters and property owners.
Tangentially related, Governor Abbott announced a plan to punish localities for cutting their police budgets by freezing their tax increase capabilities for a year. However, no such appetite has been exhibited for localities increasing property taxes at a time in which the many taxpayers’ incomes have been cut or disappeared entirely.
Regardless, Chambers County will move forward with the effective rate unlike other localities such as the City of Austin.
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Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad watching and quoting Monty Python productions.