Hidalgo, along with Commissioners Rodney Ellis (D-Pct. 1) and Adrian Garcia (D-Pct. 2), had planned to adjust the tax rate to provide approximately $245 million more in revenue for Fiscal Year 2023 than the previous year.
The rate itself, proposed at $0.51325 for every $100 of property valuation, would be lower than last year’s rate, but due to skyrocketing property appraisals, homeowners would pay more overall in taxes.
Outnumbered on the Democrat-controlled court, Commissioners Tom Ramsey (R-Pct. 3) and Jack Cagle (R-Pct. 4) cannot defeat the proposed tax increase in a vote, but by boycotting meetings until the deadline of October 28, the two can force the county to revert to a “no-new-revenue” tax rate.
Despite the moniker, under the no-new-revenue rate, the county would collect as much as $72 million in additional revenue due to new properties added to the tax rolls.
In response to the Republicans’ continued boycott, Hidalgo has asked the county attorney to present options for forcing Ramsey and Cagle to attend.
“If the only thing I can do is compel them to attend I’m willing to do that if I can do it,” said Hidalgo.
Following a huddle with the county attorney’s office in an executive session, however, Hidalgo announced that the county attorney would have to do more research into the legal options.
During a press conference at one of the county’s public hospitals Monday, Hidalgo said that without the tax increase, the Harris County hospital system would have to operate at a $45 million deficit and be unable to serve uninsured residents. Referring to renovations underway since 2019 at the Quentin Mease facility, Hidalgo added that a planned colonoscopy wing would not open.
Cagle this week pointed out that in February 2022, the hospital system reported more than $1 billion in unencumbered funds, but during Tuesday’s meeting, Hidalgo said it would be irresponsible to use such funds to cover spending. Although Budget Management Director Daniel Ramos did not dispute the existence of unallocated monies, Harris Health President Esmaeil Porsa told Hidalgo there were no reserves available.
State Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), formerly the tax-assessor collector for Harris County, said that even at the no-new-revenue tax rate, the hospital district would receive approximately $20 million more in tax revenue, but savings to taxpayers would total $245 million.
“Despite a record potential $245 million savings to Harris County Taxpayers, Judge Hidalgo is trying to blame property tax rates for a supposed $45 million ‘deficit’ in the Hospital District,” said Bettencourt in a statement.
During Tuesday’s meeting, Garcia said he wanted to “lower the temperature,” but again flagged any projects or expenditures on the agenda approved for Ramsey and Cagle’s precincts, nearly 60 items in total. Among the many projects now blocked are road repairs, intersection improvements, a storm sewer system in Tomball, and a flood reduction and drainage master plan for Precinct 4.
“A routine project in terms of promoting safety for the county was held,” Cagle told The Texan. “Each of us has a duty to represent the precinct but also to represent the county as a whole. Garcia breached his duty to the county as a whole when he held back an important flood master plan.”
During Tuesday’s meeting, resident Tammy Rodriguez asked Garcia if he was really holding up a long-awaited Gulfton Street greenspace project in collaboration with the City of Houston.
“Yep,” replied Garcia, who told Rodriguez to urge Cagle to attend the tax vote.
“It is not fair to the community for them to be denied that space because of a political back and forth,” retorted Rodriguez. “I’m not here for the bull.”
“We cannot be the victims of what y’all are doing politically-wise.”
In a statement, Ramsey lambasted Democrats for halting projects that “include pedestrian safety improvements, flood risk reduction projects, for underserved areas, and even block payments and opportunities for Minority/Women-owned Business Enterprises.”
“These are not the actions of people who want to compromise,” said Ramsey. “These are actions of bullies. They continue to push false narratives of ‘cuts’ to healthcare and law enforcement, but in reality, there are no cuts.”
Ramsey has also identified multiple expenditures in what he called a “bloated” proposed budget, such as $11 million for the controversial PFM Consulting Group, $5 million for the Holistic Assistance Response Team program which duplicates the Clinician and Officer Remote Evaluation (CORE) program, and $10 million for the public defender when that office “did not request a budget increase.”
In early September, Ramsey had agreed to vote for the tax increase if the court’s Democrats would add 200 new patrol officers, half for the sheriff’s department and half spread among the eight constables, to combat the county’s rising crime and homicide rates. Hidalgo and Garcia Tuesday both accused Ramsey of only seeking patrol officers for his own precinct.
The county has also received or will receive more than $1 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), and is asking voters to approve a $1.2 billion bond referendum on the November ballot.
In reference to suggestions the county use some ARPA funds in lieu of raising taxes, County Administrator David Berry insisted the county had never used such funds for ongoing expenses.
The county has used ARPA funds for a wide variety of spending initiatives including forays into early childhood education, offering free daycare for infants and toddlers, and voter education and outreach.
At a press conference last month, Hidalgo said she would like to continue all the new programs after federal relief funds are exhausted, but without tax increases, the county would not be able to do so.
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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.