Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia appeared on these pages twice last week. He promised to work on the problems facing the east side of the county, and he promised to increase property tax exemptions for senior citizens and the disabled.
He also supported the first county property tax rate increase in years.
Garcia, along with Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis and County Judge Lina Hidalgo, recently proposed a 2 cent increase in the overall rate.
On Tuesday, the two Republican members of the court blocked the tax increase, not through debate and persuasion, but by simply not showing up for work.
State law requires four out of five members of a County Court to be present at any vote to increase taxes. By simply boycotting the meeting, the GOP commissioners killed the tax proposal.
Judge Hidalgo and her two Democratic counterparts blamed the state of Texas for their attempted tax grab. In May, Governor Abbott signed a bill that capped year-to-year increases in property tax collections at 3.5% per year.
Democrats on the Court are worried about future flooding, increased health care costs, and continued development in unincorporated parts of the county. Given flood risks and the costs of providing government services to sprawling new development, they feel like they have to collect as much money as possible and save it for a rainy day.
Current law allows local governments to collect up to 8% per year without having to face the wrath of voters. Consequently, many local governments across the state have been raising their tax rates now in anticipation of the lower cap, which goes into effect on January 1, 2020.
However, the City of Baytown, Lee College, and Goose Creek have not raised their property tax rates. The city cut its rate by 1 cent, Lee College by 2 cents, and Goose Creek held the line.
Just like Harris County, the city faces the 3.5% cap, while Goose Creek and area school districts will be constrained by a 2.5% cap. Somehow, they are finding a way to live with the impending caps.
Even with the impending cap, the County is well suited to managed its growth. True, unincorporated parts of the county are growing quickly, but new houses and new chemical plants also generate more property tax revenue.
Voters have already approved a massive bond issue for flood control, and federal disaster aid is finally on the way for Harvey recovery efforts. Flood control projects are in progress across the county.
I sympathize with the health care argument.
Our county has the highest percentage of uninsured in the entire nation, and the county hospital district is under considerable strain. Since Texas has refused to participate in the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, the burden of caring for the poor falls far too heavily on the county.
Regardless, the county has enough money to pay its bills, and Garcia should be called out for using tax exemptions for elderly to distract us from a cash grab.
Dr. Steve Showalter is a government professor at Lee College in Baytown.