Harris County Government Must Prioritize Spending as Republican Boycott May Result in No New Revenue
Updated: Oct 10, 2022
On 9/13/22, Republican Commissioners Jack Cagle and Tom Ramsey boycotted the scheduled Harris County Commissioners Court meeting, effectively preventing Democratic County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia from setting a new property tax rate for the upcoming 2022 - 2023 fiscal year. Under state law, four court members must be present to make a quorum when setting property tax rates. Without a quorum, the new property tax rate defaults to the "No New Revenue" rate, which means Harris County government's tax revenue next year cannot exceed the tax revenue that was collected this fiscal year. Since Democrats had proposed a reduction in property tax rates, this should not be a problem, right? Well, no. Due to higher property appraisals, the tax rate proposed by the Democrats would actually result in property owners paying an additional $106 million dollars in taxes next year... and Democrats had already included that extra money in their proposed 2022 - 2023 FY budget.
So, why did the Republicans boycott? Just like last year, they objected to the Democrats' wasteful spending practices. Since 2019, Hidalgo, Ellis, and Garcia have created numerous new programs, new layers of county bureaucracy, new county departments, and authorized unnecessary outside services, to include expensive studies, consultants, legal firms, etc. Commissioner Cagle stated families struggling with pandemic difficulties and high inflation should not be made to pay more taxes for the unnecessary expansion of county government. Commissioner Ramsey was willing to compromise, but wanted $20 million dollars to go towards hiring 200 more police officers (Democrats rejected this request). Commissioners have until the end of October to reach a compromise agreement before the "No New Revenue" tax rate actually goes into effect. For more details, please click on the links below:
Since the county may be forced to adopt the "No New Revenue" property tax rate, Democrats voted to simply adopt last year's budget for the upcoming fiscal year. Unless is compromise is reached, Judge Hidalgo advised that existing county services could face significant cuts. Now, it must be noted that last fiscal year, due to higher property appraisals and increased fees, Harris County government took in an additional $144 million more revenue than the previous year (a 7.3% gain). Also, as part of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), Harris County government is currently receiving an additional $915 million dollars in federal relief funds - see the links below:
As moderate Democrats, we are inclined to be relatively liberal on most social issues but conservative on economic issues. While Harris County revenue and funding has never been higher, Judge Hidalgo argues taxpayers still need to pay more. We strongly disagree. Based on our review, Harris County government doesn't have a revenue/funding problem; it has a spending prioritization problem. For the past several years, Commissioners Court has indeed been on a wild spending spree with our taxpayer dollars. From expanding the bloated county government bureaucracy, to issuing questionable no-bid contracts, to creating numerous wasteful programs, to spending $53 million dollars of “surplus” toll road revenue on, of all things, new bicycle paths, the unnecessary spending, and lack of proper spending prioritization, has been shameful. Frankly, aside from legitimate public safety, essential infrastructure, and core services items, every time we hear our county officials say they intend to make an “investment” in something, we know another wasteful county program is about to be created or expanded. For example, as thousands of immigrants illegally swarm across our southern border on a daily basis, Judge Hidalgo created a county-funded program to help prevent them from being deported - see links below:
Since 2019, county government funding has increased every year, yet more is never enough. Now, if Judge Hidalgo, Commissioner Ellis, and Commissioner Garcia really want to avoid making cuts in "core" government services, and make significant investments in public safety and infrastructure, they don't need Republican help or another $106 million dollars from local taxpayers to do it. We are confident that, if they really have taxpayer interests at heart, they can easily find $106 million dollars in wasteful spending in the current, $2.14 billion dollar Harris County budget. TIP: Eliminate the new county government departments, non-core programs, and unnecessary (no-bid) contracts and then there will be plenty of money available. Of course, it's hard to get the officials who created the waste to now identify and eliminate it. Another option would be for Commissioners and the County Judge to just use their OWN roll-over funds (Ellis alone has over $50 million stashed away). Harris County taxpayers (voters) will be watching to see how this budget matter ultimately plays out. Rather than bite the bullet and prioritize county spending, we suspect a compromise will be reached (some new funding is better than no new funding). We would prefer that our Democratic leaders demonstrate the ability to properly prioritize county government spending and become much more judicious in their use of our taxpayer funds. If not, county voters may elect Republicans in November and give them a chance to do so.
For more information, please click on the links below:
NOTE: Harris County Commissioners Court Democrats are also asking county voters to approve a new, $1.2 billion dollar bond this November. Again, in our view, this is not a good time for Democrats to propose a tax increase, especially when county government already has access to a record amount of funding. In 2015, Harris County voters approved a $848 million dollar bond proposal, mostly for roads and mobility projects ($197 million of that money is still unspent). In 2018, county voters approved $2.5 billion in bonds for flood control projects, of which $1.8 billion is still unspent. Last month, Harris County also received $750 million from the Texas General Land Office (GLO) for projects that help mitigate future flooding events (see link below). The above doesn't include the $915 million dollars Harris County will receive in ARPA funds. Our Democratic leaders need to make judicious use of existing funds before asking Harris County taxpayers for even more money (proposing a tax increase / new bonds). For more information, please click on the link below:
UPDATE 9/26/22: As Commissioners argue they need more taxpayer revenue to provide "basic services", they continue to waste existing funds on low-priority projects. For example, Commissioners are about to spend a million dollars to build "...pedestrian trails along drainage ditch of Brays Bayou..." (Item #247; 9/27/22 Commissioners Court Agenda - see below). So, if money is tight, is this really the best use of that $1,052,326? Geez.
Also, the Public Notice for the Democrats' proposed property tax rates (tax increase) is out (please click on the link below).
NOTE: The 9/27/22 Agenda also includes a request to use $4 million dollars of the county's ARPA funds to provide "...eviction defense legal services for low-income residents..." (see below). So, they want to spend more taxpayer money on lawyers? Geez. Rather than give that $4 million to the lawyers, why not use that money to actually pay the past-due rents? The best way for residents to avoid eviction is to pay their rent. I'm sure the tax-paying property owners would appreciate some actual income.
UPDATE 9/28/22: Commissioners Ramsey and Cagle skipped the Commissioners Court meeting yesterday, again preventing Democrats from adopting their proposed property tax rates that would allow them to collect an additional $106 million dollars from county taxpayers. Faced with the reality that their record spending spree may be capped next year, we had hoped Democrats would start to develop plans to eliminate wasteful programs, reduce the bloated county bureaucracy, and reallocate existing resources to properly prioritize government spending. Instead, Hidalgo, Ellis, and Garcia indicated yesterday that law enforcement, the hospital district, and flood control funding would suffer without the proposed property tax revenue increase. So, despite existing record revenue and funding, the first thing our Democratic leaders think to reduce is funding for law enforcement, hospital services, and flood control projects? WOW. Democrats on Commissioners Court aren't just demanding more money to spend next year... they are demanding more money "or else".
UPDATE: On 10/4/22, Commissioner Jack Cagle held a press conference and offered a compromise proposal to the Democratic majority. In his proposal, Cagle agreed to allow $149 million more in taxes provided $125 million of that money is used for flood control, the county's hospital district, and to hire 200 new police officers (actual boots on the ground). The remaining $24 million dollars could be used at the discretion of Commissioners Court. Now, Cagle's proposal is still $108 million less than the tax increase proposed by the Democrats. So, will the Democratic majority compromise and accept Commissioner Cagle's proposal, or allow the "No New Revenue" tax rates to go into effect? We shall see...
For more information on Cagle's proposed compromise, please click on the link below:
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