In September, the Democratic majority on the commissioners court proposed a Fiscal Year 2023 budget and accompanying tax rate that would have increased revenues by an estimated $257 million.
Although the proposed rates, totaling $0.575 per $100 of assessed value, would have been lower than last year’s rates, due to skyrocketing appraised values, property owners would have paid more in taxes.
Republican Commissioners Tom Ramsey (R-Pct. 3) and Jack Cagle (R-Pct. 4) are outnumbered on the court 3 to 2, but state law requires a quorum of four to approve any tax rate that will result in an increased bill to taxpayers. The two have not attended meetings since September 6.
Ramsey and Cagle have opposed the tax increase as an unnecessary burden on residents coping with inflation, but have also clashed with colleagues on the commissioners court over funding for law enforcement in response to significant rises in regional crime.
Tuesday was the last day commissioners could have approved a new rate. Now the county will default to the “no-new-revenue” rate under which property owners already on the tax rolls will not pay more than last year, but the county will take in between $66 million and $72 million more than last year due to new properties added to the rolls. In addition, the county has an estimated $24 million in carry-forward funds from last year.
County Judge Lina Hidalgo accused Ramsey and Cagle of playing politics in an election year, touting a list of reductions to planned increases in the proposed budget and threatening deeper cuts to some agencies due to rising costs.
“It means cutting $100 million from law enforcement, it means cutting funding for support for sexually abused children, it means cutting funding for our veterans, it means cutting funding for public health, for libraries, and for county services,” said Hidalgo.
Cagle pushed back in a statement, “Despite Judge Hidalgo’s increasingly shrill political diatribes, today was actually a very good day for the taxpayers of Harris County.”
“By ‘voting with our feet,’ Commissioner Tom S. Ramsey and I were able to stop the $257 million tax increase favored by the court majority,” said Cagle. “Now would be a good time for county government to reassess the recent spending increases that have led to so many new and unneeded county agencies run by overpaid bureaucrats.”
Commissioner Adrian Garcia (D-Pct. 2) had offered a compromise rate that would have taken funds from the county’s toll road authority to cover more non-mobility costs. But the county never officially posted the rate as required by law before a vote, while setting up meetings for “possible action” in which the three Democrats might have forced through the higher rate.
Ramsey noted the county had only posted the originally proposed tax increase rate and, in a statement, said that was “proof the court majority never intended to negotiate.”
“Our constituents have been victims of wasteful spending for four years. From the addition of seven new departments, an $11M politically bid-rigged contract, and a historically expensive and disruptive redistricting yet no commitment to more neighborhood patrol officers – enough is enough,” said Ramsey.
County government has grown an estimated 39 percent over the past four years; new departments include justice administration and the elections administrator’s and county administrator’s offices. Hidalgo has also led in expanding county services to include early childhood education programs, free daycare, and legal defense services for immigrants facing deportation.
Hidalgo and Commissioners Rodney Ellis (D-Pct. 1) and Adrian Garcia (D-Pct. 2) have over the past few years resisted adding patrol officers and prosecutors for the district attorney’s office, and voted to take more than $20 million in rollover funds from those offices while keeping them for their own offices.
During Tuesday’s meeting, District Attorney Kim Ogg addressed the court to again address “defunding of law enforcement” over the past year, but commissioners limited her speaking to one minute. After Ogg attempted to answer a question from Garcia, Hidalgo cut her off and Ellis abruptly left the room.
First Assistant District Attorney David Mitcham urged Hidalgo not to cut $100 million from law enforcement budgets, noting that in addition to increased tax revenue, the county was spending too much on “social programs that will not enhance public safety anytime soon.”
“$50 million for environmental beautification, $31 million for workforce development, $13 million for early child development, eight million for new bike trails, and a million and a half for public Wi-Fi; there’s your $100 million,” said Mitcham. “You cut that, and you fund law enforcement.”
More than 75 constables’ deputies also attended Tuesday’s 1:00 p.m. meeting in hopes of addressing the court, but at 12:45 pm, the county attorney’s office sent out new rules limiting the number of people allowed inside the courtroom and reserving the first two rows of seats for county employees.
At a previous meeting where law enforcement officers and residents had packed the room, many in the crowd booed Hidalgo after she adjourned the meeting early and left without hearing their comments.
The no-new-revenue rate for Harris County, which includes the Port of Houston Authority and the flood control and hospital districts, will be $0.53 per $100 of assessed value.
According to the Texas Taxpayers Research Association, last year, 31 percent of counties across the state set tax rates at or below the no-new-revenue rate.
On Tuesday afternoon, state Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), former Harris County tax assessor-collector, applauded Ramsey and Cagle in a statement for successfully blocking the tax increase. “Claims of property tax revenue cuts are not valid as the no-new-revenue rate leaves new growth of 72 million dollars for all the taxing units involved.”
“Discussion over, taxpayers win!”
A copy of the county attorney’s crowd control rules for commissioners court can be found below.
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Holly Hansen is a regional reporter for The Texan living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.