Similar to the ongoing situation in Harris County, the pair in Brazos County are objecting to a property tax increase proposed by the county budget.
The county proposed a $0.4835 tax rate per $100 of valuation. That’s down one cent from the previous year’s rate, but due to appraisal increases it will generate more collections. Officials have appraisal roll numbers available to them when making tax rate decisions.
It is 5.4 cents higher than the no-new-revenue rate at which no new tax revenues are brought in other than new property added to the rolls. If approved, the first proposed rate would bring in $11.5 million more from existing properties. According to Aldrich, $7 million of that is earmarked for the contingency fund — a kind of break-in-case-of-emergency pool of money — which already has roughly $4 million in it.
Aldrich and Ford have been absent from multiple meetings since September to force a lower tax rate. Texas Local Government Code requires a quorum to pass a tax increase and for commissioners courts, that requires four votes of the five-member bodies. If no quorum exists for a tax rate vote 60 days after the certified report is provided by the local tax assessor, then the no-new-revenue rate is automatically adopted.
Strategically breaking quorum to gum up the governing process gained national attention last year when state House Democrats fled to Washington, D.C. for a month to avoid passing an election reform bill. But the practice predates last year’s Democratic expatriation.
Two Lubbock County officials successfully pulled off the maneuver in 2019. Shortly after, two Harris County commissioners achieved the same — which is being repeated this year in the state’s largest county.
The quorum requirement exists for other local government bodies but because of their small size in number, counties are uniquely poised to allow for two individuals to cause havoc. Other bodies require more members to coordinate to break quorum.
Aldrich and Ford have offered a compromise to end their quorum break: a $0.4435 rate that would keep tax bills level for homeowners with homestead exemptions.
But County Judge Duane Peters has yet only agreed to a $0.4635 rate, still the listed rate on Tuesday’s agenda.
“Going to $0.4635 is going to impact the county negatively but I don’t want to be a part of running it down further,” Peters told The Texan, adding that he believes the other commissioners will not budge and the county will have to adopt the no-new-revenue rate.
Peters said that projects such as roof repairs from hail storm damage, fixing a gutter system at the county expo that’s causing concrete to shift, and the hiring of a chief public defender depend on his proposed rate.
“If it goes to no-new-revenue then we’re going to have to start telling people we can’t do certain things. We’ll have to trim some stuff or may have to up the rate again down the road.”
He added that counties are more dependent on property taxes than cities; they make up about 70 percent of tax revenues for counties compared to 30 percent for cities. This is the first year the budget is put together by someone other than Peters as the county eclipsed 225,000 population, the threshold at which budget responsibilities are moved away from the county judge.
“I’ve never been accused of being a tax and spend liberal,” he said. “My philosophy has always been to build up a [capital contingency] fund balance and use that to fund smaller projects rather than borrowing money in bonds.”
“We offered that [compromise rate] but the county judge stayed firm at $0.4635 and I think he’s willing to go to the wall on that,” Ford told The Texan.
A median homeowner with the 20 percent homestead exemption in Bryan whose home is valued at $275,000 would see this year’s bill increase by $83 with the original proposed rate. With Peters’ compromise rate, the increase would amount to just $39. Aldrich’s compromise would yield a $5 decrease in the tax bill, while adoption of the no-new-revenue rate would yield a $36 decrease.
Aldrich told The Texan he intends to draw the standoff out past October 22 unless his colleagues agree to the $0.4435 rate, and that he “looks forward to celebrating the win either way for Brazos County taxpayers.”
“Typically, politicians fist bump and chest bump over lowering the tax rate, but if appraisals go up it’s still a tax increase,” he added.
Aldrich voted against the tax rate the last two years but had not pulled a colleague over to make the stand he and Ford are making now — an idea he said he borrowed from Harris County Commissioner Jack Cagle.
In 2020, Ford was appointed by the Brazos County GOP to replace then-Commissioner Sammy Catalena, who suddenly passed away in May that year, on the November ballot. Ford won that November but lost this year’s GOP primary to Chuck Konderla, meaning this stand will be one of the last things Ford does during this stint on the court.
“It’s the opportunity of a lifetime to keep tax bills level; the county will be just fine with the no-new-revenue rate,” Ford concluded.
The county also has a $100 million bond proposition on the November ballot for road repairs.
Asked if the fallout from this standoff will bleed over into upcoming years, Peters said, “I think it will make things pretty difficult.”
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Brad Johnson is a senior reporter for The Texan and 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 quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.