HOUSTON (CN) – Two Texas Republicans prevented their Democratic colleagues from voting to raise property taxes in the Houston area on Tuesday by not showing up for a meeting of the county’s executive board.
With Harris County, home of Houston, still waiting on the federal government to kick in Hurricane Harvey recovery funds, and the population in its unincorporated area growing by as much as 100,000 per year, some county officials want to sock away as much money as possible before a state law blocks property tax increases.
Homeowners in large cities and suburbs across the state are being priced out of their homes by rising property taxes, and the Texas Legislature and Republican Governor Greg Abbott made good on their vow to do something about it this year.
They passed a bill in June requiring cities and counties, starting Jan. 1, 2020, to hold an election if they want to raise property tax revenue by more than 3.5% from the previous year.
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, joined by two fellow Democrats on the Harris County Commissioners Court, voted 3-2 along party lines on Sept. 10 in favor of a proposal to raise the county’s property tax rate by 8%. The tax increase would have raised the bill for an owner of a $230,000 home by $38 in the first year.
Hidalgo is not a court of law judge. She leads the commissioners court, the county’s executive board.
The decision of Harris County Precinct 3 and Precinct 4 Commissioners Steve Radack and Jack Cagle not to attend Tuesday’s board meeting prevented the Democratic majority from having the four-commissioner quorum needed to change the tax rate.
Consequently, the rate will revert to the “effective” rate, resulting in a $3 billion county budget deficit over 10 years, Hidalgo said at Tuesday’s meeting.
To stay below the 3.5% cap, Harris County may have to lower its rates because home value appraisals are creeping up.
Hidalgo said at the meeting the Legislature had passed the “draconian” law to “score some political points.”
“It’s basically like somebody telling you, ‘we all keep savings for our own personal finances in the event of a rainy day,’ and having the government tell you, ‘you’re not allowed to save,’” she said.
William Jackson, the county’s budget director, said that due to the Great Recession of the late 2000s, the county had to lay off 1,000 workers and abstain from hiring 1,000 more.
He recommended passing the 8% tax hike to add to the county’s $200 million rainy day fund as a cushion to prevent another mass layoff in the event of a similar economic downturn or another large storm like Hurricane Harvey.
Hidalgo said that those savings allowed the county to pick up debris from Tropical Storm Imelda last month in record time.
“We’ve grown by 67% since 1990,” Hidalgo said. Harris County is Texas’ most populous with more than 4.5 million residents.
She continued, “So year-to-year growth, as more people move into Harris County they demand more services, more flood control, more health care, more roads, more bridges, more public transit. And if we can’t grow our revenue to keep up with that and our year-to-year growth is 0%, which is what they are trying to do, then we won’t be able to keep up with the services that people have come to expect.”
Hidalgo’s concerns about major storms are shared by area residents, as scientists say such storms are now a fact of life for the Houston region due to climate change.
Torrential rain storms have hit the county each year since 2016, including Harvey, which dumped around 50 inches over four days in August 2017, an amount the county used to get over a whole year, according to the Harris County Flood Control District.
Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said at Tuesday’s meeting some of his constituents had been living in mobile homes as they repaired their homes that Harvey damage.
He said they had just moved into their houses “literally for one day and now thank goodness they had not pulled that mobile home away because now they are right back in it,” after Tropical Storm Imelda struck late last month and flooded them out a second time.
Harris County is not the only one of Texas’ 254 counties grappling with how to ensure tax revenue can keep up with population growth.
Ahead of the state law throttling property tax revenue starting in 2020, Travis, Tarrant and Lubbock counties have raised their taxes. The state capital Austin is the seat of Travis County, while Fort Worth is the seat of Tarrant County.