If Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo has her way, county property owners will be saddled with significantly higher tax bills next year.
Earlier this month, in a familiar 3-2 party-line vote, county commissioners rushed to increase the property tax rate by the maximum 8 percent allowable without voter approval before new state tax relief measures take effect in 2020.
Beginning next year, most local governments will need voter approval to raise taxes more than 3.5 percent each year.
Under the current proposal, rates will increase from 0.62998 to 0.65260 per $100 of valuation. Combined with rising appraisals, the new rate could result in tax increases of more than 10 percent for some residents.
Texas Senator Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) called the move a “maximum smash on taxpayers,” noting that the proposed rate would result in a windfall revenue increase of nearly $220 million.
Just last year, Harris County voters approved a $2.5 billion bond to fund flood risk reduction projects, but Judge Hidalgo said she wanted the additional increases in order to build up a “rainy day fund.”
During the September 24 public hearing, Commissioner Jack Cagle (R-Precinct 4) produced 423 emails his office had received opposing the increase and asked they be considered part of the record. He also brought the only two emails he received in support of the tax increase.
On September 10, Cagle had motioned to increase only the rate for the Flood Control District, which is one of four county tax categories. His proposal would have adopted the effective rate for the county, the Hospital District, and the Port of Houston.
Adopting the effective rate would still yield approximately $37 million in new revenue, according to county estimates.
Commissioners Adrian Garcia (D- Precinct 2) and Rodney Ellis (D-Precinct 1) joined Hidalgo in approving the maximum increase proposal. The court set public hearings for September 20 and 24, and again during the upcoming October 8 meeting when the final vote to approve the new rate will take place.
Billed as a public hearing, the meeting on the 20th often featured more commentary and debate between commissioners than opportunities for public testimony.
In opening comments, Hidalgo accused commissioners who opposed the increase of being “deeply irresponsible,” and just trying “to score political points.”
Commissioner Cagle pushed back, saying he “took umbrage” at her comments and noted that the county boasted a contingency fund of more than $200 million at the beginning of 2019 when Judge Hidalgo took office.
Earlier, commissioners had unanimously voted to expend $5 million from the contingency fund for relief efforts related to Tropical Storm Imelda, but $90 million had already been set aside to accommodate the county’s controversial bail bond settlement back in August.
“The failure to raise a tax is not the same thing as to cut a tax,” said Cagle. “Our legislature has spoken, the 3.5 percent growth… is a reasonable growth prospect.”
Cagle further addressed Hidalgo, “I’m sorry that you think I’m deeply irresponsible because I don’t want to raise taxes…But I believe what we are doing without giving the public an opportunity to vote on it is irresponsible.”
Commissioner Steve Radack (R- Precinct 3) also responded to Hidalgo saying he’d never previously voted against a county tax increase, but that an increase is “totally unnecessary at this time.”
“If you overspend like this court has, you’re going to run into problems. It’s like a Ponzi scheme.” Radack continued, “We need to tighten our belt, and deal with the growth, and we totally have the ability to do that without a tax increase.”
Among those providing testimony at the first public hearing were State Representative Armando Walle (D-Houston) and Republican candidate for State House District 148 Luis LaRotta.
Rep. Walle said he supported the proposed tax increase because people in his district, especially in the unincorporated parts of the county, wanted more county services.
LaRotta opposed the increase, saying “Taxpayers need relief, that was the whole purpose of the last legislative session.”
While Republican Commissioners Cagle and Steve Radack (R-3) are outnumbered on the court, state law would allow them to thwart the increase by simply not attending the scheduled vote.
Earlier this month, two Lubbock County Commissioners refused to attend meetings to set that county’s tax rate, thus denying the court the necessary quorum.
As a former Texas State Senator, Commissioner Ellis was among ten other Senate Democrats who, in 2003, spent over a month in New Mexico in an attempt to deny the Senate a quorum for redistricting.
At the September 20 hearing, Commissioner Ellis asked First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard about how a lack of quorum would impact the tax rate.
“You default to the effective rate,” answered Soard.
At the second public hearing, Soard advised the court that he had consulted with the state comptroller’s office and learned that the county could immediately propose an “in-between rate” to be published and voted on prior to the October rate-setting deadline, but Judge Hidalgo, who repeatedly referred to the rollback rate as an ”extreme revenue cap,” refused to consider an alternative option.
“If the political stunt is to from now not show up so that we can tell Paul Bettencourt…that [it’s] a zero percent growth…that would be catastrophic.”
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Holly Hansen is a freelance writer 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.