What a $50 savings per taxpayer is costing Harris County residents

Republican officials contend last fall’s boycott of Harris County Commissioners Court was more than worth it, forcing cuts to what they saw as a bloated budget and granting relief to taxpayers burdened by inflation. But the bill is coming due in the form of starved departments and fewer services.

By Andrew Schneider, Houston Public MediaJanuary 24, 2023 9:50 am, , ,

From Houston Public Media:

Republican Commissioners Jack Cagle and Tom Ramsey boycotted Harris County Commissioners Court for weeks this past fall to force the Democratic majority to adopt a smaller budget and lower tax rates. Both at the time and since, Ramsey and Cagle have argued that their actions collectively saved county taxpayers more than a quarter of a billion dollars. What those savings amount to per taxpayer, and whether the savings are worth the effects on county services, are another question.

The Democratic majority on commissioners court initially proposed a budget for Fiscal Year 2023 of $2.24 billion. As a result of the Republican commissioners’ boycott, the Democrats were forced to adopt a reduced budget of $2.13 billion — a difference of $110 million.

State Senator Paul Bettencourt has made a career out of trying to lower people’s property taxes. Shortly before Christmas, he gathered several local leaders in his West Houston office to announce that the average Harris County property tax bill would be lower for 2022 than the year before.

“While it’s a net difference of $50, it’s the first time that since I was elected a tax assessor in 1998 that we’ve ever seen this,” Bettencourt said, citing figures produced by the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association. “It’s really astonishing good news for taxpayers because taxpayers are used to having bills that just climb and go to the moon. But this year they’re not.”

The reasons were a combination of tax relief bills passed by the Texas Legislature a few years ago, a pair of homestead exemptions passed by Texas voters last spring, and a nearly two-month boycott of Harris County Commissioners Court by Cagle and Ramsey. This last move forced the court’s Democratic majority to cap the revenues allowed to be collected for the tax year 2022 to the same levels of 2021 – hence the term, “no new revenue rate.”

“We are all impacted by what happened to COVID,” Commissioner Tom Ramsey said at the press conference. “We’re all impacted by what happened with the record inflation over the last year. To get some tax relief, any kind of relief, is historic, and I’m proud to be a part of it.”

Ramsey said that calling the lower tax rate a no new revenue rate was actually a misnomer because the county is actually getting more property tax revenue from new construction.

“It’s actually $70 million more in there due to new construction and other factors,” Ramsey said. “So, there’s actually an increased revenue in Harris County that doesn’t have anything to do with the tax rate.”

Harris County’s Office of Management and Budget said the actual amount is closer to $66 million.

Regardless, Commissioner Cagle, who lost his re-election, said the budget was more than enough to pay for the county government’s core responsibilities — public safety and infrastructure.

“I think that where we went wrong, is that we started spending and things that were not so much the county’s prerogative, and when we did it, we didn’t do it that well,” Cagle said, naming Democratic priorities such as early childhood education as examples. “When taxpayers are struggling to make their ends meet was not the time for us to increase the taxes on them. And we actually got more money,”

Cagle said he wanted to save taxpayers money in a time of inflation. But Democrats on commissioners court argued they wanted to cut tax rates as well. The Harris County Office of Management and Budget estimates that the difference between the county’s proposed tax rates and the no new revenue rates it was forced to adopt was just over $100 a year for a home valued at $300,000.

“It was never a discussion about whether we were going to cut taxes,” said Daniel Ramos, the budget office’s executive director. “The discussion was about how much we were going to cut taxes.”

Ramos agreed with Cagle that rising costs are a problem for taxpayers, but they’re a problem the county faces as well.

“What departments are dealing with is with inflation for the cost of goods but also inflation for the county’s health care,” Ramos said. “And so most departments are having, just to provide the same level of service, it’s costing about 10% more than it was in the prior fiscal year.”

Ramos said the county’s health care costs alone eat up more than a third of the additional revenue from higher property appraisals. “Departments, because things cost about 10% more than they did the prior year, it is a functional cut,” he said. “Where they may have been able to afford 10 positions, they’re only able to afford nine because healthcare costs went up about $800 per employee.”

On top of inflation, there were also increases to the county’s debt service. And that’s not even considering a series of unfunded mandates the Legislature passed in 2021.

SB 1 significantly increased the cost for us to run elections,” he said. “SB 6 significantly increased the number of personnel needed to document folks that go through our justice system. SB 23 put a hard floor on how much we must spend on public safety on a year-to-year basis.”

The upshot is that the county is dealing with very real cuts across the board, including to core services.

“It’s easy to say we should do everything we can and only fund public safety, but for example, Universal Services supports the fleet and the IT for the Sheriff’s Department,” Ramos said. “Many of these services (that) support public safety have been significantly underinvested in and will continue to hamper the quality of the service that’s being provided throughout the rest of the county.”

That’s not to say the county is laying off employees en masse. Most departments have been able to absorb cuts into their vacant positions. But in many cases, departments had been using those vacant positions to offset other spending.

As an example, Ramos pointed to the Institute of Forensic Science, which manages the county morgue. “The medical examiners are all certified doctors with specialized skills,” he said. “They were using the vacancy savings to fund contractors. And so, we’re doing less autopsies as a county than we were prior to the no new revenue.”

The county is still less than four months through into the current fiscal year. Ramos is scheduled to give Commissioners Court an update on countywide revenues and expenditures on January 31.

“We’re still at the beginning,” Ramos said. “Right now, the District Attorney’s payroll is equal to their total appropriation…The Sheriff’s Department is putting off hiring of additional deputies. We’re seeing this across many, many different departments.”

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