When Judge Lina Hidalgo (D) called to order this week’s meeting of the Harris County Commissioners Court, the two Republican members of the court were conspicuously absent.
The court had been scheduled to vote on Hidalgo’s proposal to raise property taxes by the maximum 8 percent allowable without voter approval. After January 1, 2020 a new state tax relief law will lower the maximum to 3.5 percent for cities and counties.
But according to state statute, four of the five elected members of the court must be present to establish a quorum for a tax levy vote.
In skipping the meeting, Commissioners Steve Radack (R-Precinct 3) and Jack Cagle (R-Precinct 4) succeeded in blocking a tax rate increase that Cagle called “unwise, unjust, and unfair.”
“The residents of Precinct 4 elected me to represent them. They did not elect me to lord over them or to repress them,” Cagle said in a prepared statement. “This is the taxpayers’ money, not the government’s.”
At a September 10 meeting, Cagle had proposed increasing the rate for only the Harris County Flood Control District but was overruled by Hidalgo. Democrat Commissioners Rodney Ellis (Precinct 1) and Adrian Garcia (Precinct 2) joined Hidalgo in a 3-2 party-line vote to increase taxes in all four county tax categories.
Under the proposed increase, rates would have increased from 0.62998 to 0.6520 per $100 of valuation. According to the county budget office, the average increase for homeowners would total $38 per year.
Texas State Senator Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) argued that the estimated $38 increase did not consider property value growth. Instead, he said the average homeowner, with a taxable value of $177,690, would likely see an increase of $118 per year, and that some residents would experience rate increases of nearly 12 percent.
Without the quorum needed to approve Hidalgo’s proposed rate, Harris County will revert to the “effective rate.” While the rate itself will fall to 0.61170, many property owners will still pay a higher tax bill next year due to rising values, and the county will still collect an estimated $37 million more in revenue.
During public hearings, Commissioner Garcia frequently reminded the public that appraisal processes were also responsible for higher property tax bills.
“The reality is that the majority of the problem is… not what we’re proposing, but it’s the fact that you’ve got a runaway appraisal district. That appraisal district has been raising your assessed value 10 percent every year.”
At a previous hearing, Commissioner Cagle had produced a stack of 423 emails printed on red paper opposing the increase and two emails supporting the increase printed on blue paper.
During today’s meeting, a staffer placed another much larger stack of “red paper emails” at Cagle’s place on the dais. According to the Precinct Four Commissioner’s Twitter feed, today’s stack represented 1,303 emails opposing the tax increase, and only 31 in favor.
Referring to the absence of Cagle and Radack as a “stunt,” Hidalgo expressed frustration over the new state law restricting non-voter approved tax rate increases, which she called “draconian.”
“The state has passed this law…that will keep us from being able to provide the services folks have come to expect.”
Earlier this year, two Lubbock County Commissioners also blocked a tax increase by denying the court the necessary quorum, but several other counties have rushed forward with tax rate hikes before the change in state law.
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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.