While many Texans are struggling under the economic blow dealt by government pandemic restrictions, Houston is considering adopting a 2021 tax rate that will increase homeowners’ tax burdens next year.
In a 15-1 vote last Wednesday, the Houston City Council agreed to hold a public hearing and vote on a proposal that would technically reduce the published rate from $0.56792 to $0.561840, but since property value appraisals have risen by more than 4 percent, homeowners will actually pay more under the new rate.
The public hearing to be followed by a council vote is set for Wednesday, October 21 at 9:00 a.m.
Under the tax reform bill known as Senate Bill 2 (SB 2) passed by the Texas Legislature in 2019, cities and counties may not raise the property tax burden above 3.5 percent without holding an election for voter approval. Houston’s official notice of the proposed rate says the average homestead value has risen from $240,320 to $250,355 — a value increase of 4.18 percent. The resulting tax increase for the average homestead will rise by $42 or 3.06 percent according to the city.
Councilwoman Amy Peck, the only member to vote against placing the proposed rate on the agenda, has noted however that the city is utilizing a disputable loophole in property tax code to calculate the rate. Instead of using the 3.5 percent multiplier, she says the city is using the 8 percent multiplier some say is available to areas under the COVID-19 disaster area declaration.
“While no time is a good time to increase taxes from the lowest rate it should be, this certainly is the worst time to do so,” Peck wrote in a statement. “Unemployment is skyrocketing. People are struggling with money, health, and uncertainty.”
State Senator Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) has also opposed the rate, saying that the city’s published numbers do not provide a full accounting of the revenue increase.
While the city’s public statement says the increase will amount to $11.2 million, Bettencourt, Harris County’s former tax assessor collector, told The Texan that when all conditions are factored in, such as tax increment reinvestment zones (TIRZ), the total revenue increase for the City of Houston will be closer to $37 million.
“This is about a $37 million dollar overcharge of taxpayers,” said Bettencourt. “On a $200,000 home, the homeowner is going to pay about $47 more in taxes. That’s about a 5 percent taxable value increase.”
Bettencourt pointed out that Houstonians in particular are struggling with high unemployment rates.
“Seven out of the top 10 unemployment areas by state senate district are from Houston,” said Bettencourt. “Mine is number one, Borris Miles number two, and [John] Whitmire number three.”
According to the Texas Workforce Commission, Harris County, which encompasses most of Houston, continues to lead the state in unemployment claims with 7,831 new claims reported for the week ending October 10, 2020. The overall unemployment rate for the state has risen to 8.3 percent.
A proposal from Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner to raise taxes by double-digit percentages following Hurricane Harvey in 2017 was soundly defeated by the council in a 15-2 vote. That proposal would have only produced approximately $7 million in new revenue.
During last week’s city council meeting, neither the mayor nor any council member identified a purpose or justification for the revenue increase.
Residents wishing to address the city council on the proposed tax increase may do so on October 21 during the public hearing scheduled for 9:00 a.m at the Houston City Hall. Details for signing up and participating are available on the city’s website.
Correction: This article originally misstated the taxable value increase as the appraised value increase. We regret the error.
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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.