The Tarrant County Commissioners voted to accept County Judge Glen Whitley’s extension of an executive order requiring businesses to enforce mask-wearing by their employees and customers until August 31.
Republicans J.D. Johnson and Gary Fickes joined Democrat Roy Charles Brooks voting with Whitley in favor of the order. The other Democrat on the court, Devan Allen, was absent.
The order was originally issued on June 26 and mandated that businesses develop a health and safety policy that would require their employees and customers to wear masks. The county’s own health and safety policy requiring all employees and visitors to county buildings to wear facial covering was also extended.
The order includes an exception in instances when it “poses a significant mental or physical health risk to the individual.”
Governor Greg Abbott’s mask order (GA-29) was instituted on July 3 and remains in effect, with no named expiration date.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued an opinion letter on August 3 to Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan confirming that either a county judge or a county commissioners court could mandate masks in county buildings, including courtrooms.
“Consistent with its authority to regulate use of its public buildings, a commissioners court may require any person entering a courthouse or other county-owned or controlled building to wear a facial covering in an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19,” Paxton stated in the letter.
Additionally, Paxton stated that the mask mandates may be enforced by fines or denial of entry into a county building.
The letter did not mention allowing any exceptions for mental or physical risk, as stated in Tarrant County’s order and Abbott’s mask order.
Tarrant County’s renewal order states that “transmission of COVID-19 has not significantly dissipated and remains a serious threat to the health and safety of the Tarrant County Community and additional action is necessary to decrease rates of infection and the number of people admitted to hospitals, ICU, or on ventilators.”
According to Tarrant County’s website, approximately ten percent (557) of the hospital beds in the county are currently occupied by patients with confirmed cases of COVID-19. The rate of positive tests is down to about 13 percent from a peak to-date of 20 percent in early July.
Dr. Vinny Taneja, the director of the county health department, told the commissioners court that hospitalizations are trending downward and that the death rate is remaining relatively flat.
He stipulated that these trends are welcome news, but he encouraged county residents to continue the practices that have been pushed for weeks: wear masks everywhere, stay home as much as possible, avoid large crowds, and maintain social distance when in groups.
He further added that the county will be adjusting its “COVID Dashboard” where it reports statistics to the public daily. Reports received by 4:00 p.m will be included in the daily counts.
Additionally, it will begin reporting probable cases as well, as required by the Department of State Health Services. Probable cases are not included in the total case count, according to the DSHS website.
Whitley asked for clarification and Taneja confirmed that no person is included in probable case counts unless that person has symptoms consistent with COVID-19.
School Order Rescinded
The commissioners court also voted to rescind the joint control order of July 21 regarding school openings. The rescission was part of the court’s consent agenda. That order prohibited public and non-religious private schools from opening in person prior to September 28.
However, Paxton said in a letter last week that county officials aren’t the appropriate authorities to make decisions about when schools open. “That decision rightfully remains with school system leaders,” he said.
Budget Hearings Begin
Tarrant County is about to begin public hearings on the budget for Fiscal Year 2021 on Monday, August 10. County Administrator G.K. Maenius said that he anticipates the county will adopt the 2020 property tax rate for 2021, which is $0.234 per $100 valuation.
Even without a tax rate increase, the median homeowner in Tarrant County can expect to see about a $20 increase in the annual county property tax bill for a home valued at about $229,000, accounting for an estimated 3.8 percent increase in value from 2019.
Tarrant County does not offer a homestead exemption.
Maenius believes that, based on projections, by keeping the previous rate the county will come in under a 3.5 percent increase, a trigger above which requires approval by the voters, as signed into law last year.
County Auditor Renee Tidwell explained to the commissioners court that current economic conditions and uncertainty led her to use a 99.5 percent collection rate in her revenue projections, rather than the typical 100 percent collection rate.
This will have a $2.4 million impact on property tax revenues, she stated. While the county hasn’t collected 100 percent of its property tax revenue in the last few years, other revenue streams have been able to make up for the shortfall.
Even with the lower projected revenue, Maenius expects the county still to have adequate reserves and provide a three-percent pay for performance increase in FY2021.
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Kim Roberts is a reporter for the Texan in the DFW metroplex area where she has lived for over twenty years. She has a Juris Doctor from Baylor University Law School and a Bachelor's in government from Angelo State University. In her free time, Kim home schools her daughter and coaches high school extemporaneous speaking and apologetics. She has been happily married to her husband for 23 years, has three wonderful children, and two dogs.