When Hidalgo called the meeting of the Harris County Commissioners Court to order Tuesday morning, neither Commissioners Tom Ramsey (R-Pct. 3) nor Jack Cagle (R- Pct. 4) were seated at the dais.
In an emailed statement, Cagle explained his absence as invoking a “longstanding state law to force some badly needed property tax relief.”
“We were only beginning to get back on our feet from the economic burdens imposed by COVID restrictions when historic inflation levels came along and knocked many of us flat again,” said Cagle. “Now is not the time for local government to take advantage of inflated property appraisals to pay for an expanded government footprint. Now is when we should be fighting alongside taxpayers to help them dig out from under the rubble.”
The court had been scheduled to vote on a proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2023 and proposed tax rate that would have added $245.2 million in new revenue to county coffers. The additional revenue was to be spread across the general fund, the hospital district, and the flood control district.
Without the necessary quorum, under state law, the county must revert to the so-called no-new-revenue tax rate, which is $0.53155 per $100 of property valuation.
In October 2019, Hidalgo had proposed to raise the tax rate by the 8 percent then allowed under state law, but Cagle and former Commissioner Steve Radack did not attend, thus averting the increase.
Earlier this month, Ramsey had vowed to oppose any budget that did not include adding 200 new patrol officers to the sheriff and constables’ offices, but the Democratic majority on the court opposed his plan.
In a statement posted to social media Tuesday, Ramsey explained that the $100 million difference in the general county revenue, excluding the flood control and hospital districts, amounted to just 4.5 percent of the proposed $2.2 billion budget.
“That’s half of the current inflation rate,” he stated.
“My top priority is law enforcement,” said Ramsey, who also challenged Hidalgo’s claim that there were 400 unfilled law enforcement positions. “That number, however, is actually all the open positions in Harris County in the Sheriff’s department, in the Jail system, in the Constable programs, and numerous other agencies. Those vacancies include administration, dispatchers, clerical and on and on.”
An irate Hidalgo dismissed Cagle’s reference to inflation claiming “inflation is down,” although the U.S. Labor Department reported on Tuesday that the Consumer Price Index rose 8.3 percent last month from the previous year.
Hidalgo asked for all department heads to speak about how cuts would impact programs, and had Budget Management Director Daniel Ramos list what she referred to as “cuts,” the amounts departments would not receive without the proposed tax increase.
Regarding the proposed $14 million increase for the flood control district that could not occur without a tax increase, Cagle and Ramsey announced they would each transfer $7 million from their own commissioner’s budgets to ensure that flood projects and maintenance would move forward.
In response to questions about whether the amounts were actually budget cuts, Hidalgo said, “It’s not just a lack of an increase, it’s not. Because the cost for these departments have gone up due to population growth and due to inflation, and so these budgets are now operating in a deficit.”
Hidalgo also proposed to reschedule the vote on the higher tax rate for September 27, 2022, and added that she would not be allowing Cagle or Ramsey to have any say on where any funds would be allocated.
Commissioner Adrian Garcia (D-Pct. 2) concurred, saying, “If they’re not here I’m not gonna entertain any recognition programs,” and proceeded to flag all county projects on the agenda planned for precincts 3 and 4 to be held indefinitely.
Following Garcia’s action, which was supported by Hidalgo and Commissioner Rodney Ellis (D- Pct. 1), Ramsey released a statement calling the action a “new low in county commissioner politics,” and said the halted items include residents’ community center wellness classes, community maintenance schedules, flood rescue equipment, and roadway and drainage projects.
“Going after each other’s infrastructure projects and resident services sets a dangerous precedent. I asked to set aside $20M for more patrol officers,” said Ramsey. “For this, Judge Hidalgo and Commissioners Ellis and Garcia are punishing Precinct 3 residents by, yet again, disrupting Precinct 3 services and projects. This is retaliation against Harris County residents at its lowest level. It punishes residents because they disagree about having a responsible fiscal budget.”
“It’s childish and embarrassing for the Court and Harris County.”
Cagle’s office also reposted on social media a statement Hidalgo made in support of Democratic legislators who left the state during the 2021 Texas legislative sessions, calling the quorum break a “valid parliamentary maneuver.”
Prior to Tuesday’s meeting, Garcia published and then deleted a video on social media saying that if taxes were not increased there would be “more food poisoning, more mosquitoes, closed health clinics, longer emergency room wait times, higher health insurance costs, fewer wheelchairs, walkers, hospital beds, and portable oxygen equipment at public hospitals.”
Garcia’s video also stated there would be “more cats and dogs euthanized.”
Hidalgo’s Republican challenger, Alexandra del Moral Mealer, praised Cagle and Ramsey for “taking a stand against a budget that would have increased taxes on Harris County residents, continued to under-fund local law enforcement relative to the challenges they face, and permitted more spending on Lina Hidalgo’s pet projects.”
State Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) posted a chart on social media showing that a no-new-revenue rate would mean record property tax relief for taxpayers while still giving the county millions in more revenue.
The county’s budget proposal states that property tax revenue to be raised from new property added to the tax roll this year is $44,750,277.
According to Ramos, the county may approve a new tax rate as late as October 28 and Hidalgo has promised to reschedule the tax rate vote through that date.
Commissioners also voted along party lines in August to place a $1.2 billion bond referendum on the November ballot despite having $197 million in unspent funds from the 2015 bond package.
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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.