Most every week, we publish a sampling of letters and notes we receive at The Leader. That’s the spot for our readers to say what’s on their mind, and if we could get 100 letters a week, we’d try to run them all.
And most times, I don’t say much about those letters because I get this whole block of space to spew nonsense every week.
Every once in a while, though, I think it’s important to answer some of the letters – whether they’re directed at me or not. I only do this a couple of times a year, and this seems like an appropriate week.
Last week, I dribbled a bunch of words together in an attempt to explain why those of us with voter ID cards are being asked to interrupt our first Saturday in May to vote – again – on a proposition that allows the Houston ISD to send $77 million to the state of Texas.
The technical term for this nonsense is “recapture,” and it means Houston collects more property tax than we need for our students, so the state is going to recapture that money and deliver it to other students around the state. (Feel free to go back and read my column from last week or last October if you’re in the dark.)
One of the nuggets I shared was that HISD would have to pay $800,000 to put on this election, and my conclusion was that HISD went from having to send $165 million to $77 million, so it’s probably worth the cost of the election.
And then, with the click of the send/receive button, I was made to feel like a complete sucker.
An astute reader named Kerry Rock sent me a very simple letter: “I am sure that there is some law that prevents this, but why not reduce the tax rate so we have no excess to share?”
As someone who despises every April 15, I should be ashamed for not asking that exact question. Better late than never, so I asked Leah Olive-Nishioka, the spokeswoman for Tax Assessor Ann Harris Bennett, if it was against the law to reduce property taxes.
“We have very little to do with Tax Law and no input on the rates and appraisal values,” Nishioka said. Not much help there.
Apparently, I needed to ask someone in Austin, so I called State Sen. Paul Bettencourt’s office. Bettencourt is pushing a property tax reform bill through the Senate as we speak, and he’s furious that Texans’ property taxes have increased by almost 34 percent in the last five years.
His spokeswoman, Lauri Saathoff, said Bettencourt would call back later this week.
We’re not done chasing this squirrel, Kerry. It makes absolute sense that the rate of our property tax increases are out of control, which now explains why HISD has too much money. Stay tuned.
Reporting on Crime
I received three emails from frustrated readers about a story we published in the Feb. 25 edition of The Leader about what we considered a disturbing crime trend on 19th Street in the Heights.
If you didn’t see the story, it sounds like most of the business owners on 19th Street would rather you not read it anyway.
Here’s what happened: Each month or so, we look through public records that show us the crimes committed in this area. Actually, we see this data every day. But monthly, we try to spot any trends in order to warn readers about potential problems and also call the Houston Police Department’s attention to those crimes.
The week of Feb. 20, we noticed something strange. There had been 13 reported crimes along 19th Street in the first two weeks of February. That didn’t sound good, because if that trend continued, we’d never have a soul shopping on what amounts to our local Main Street.
As journalists, one of the things we can still do – like it or not – is to bring attention to a problem in our community. The reason we do that is not to sell more papers. We are a free newspaper after all, so we don’t partake in splashy news to drive our revenue.
No, we actually care about this community and its safety, and unlike Joe Citizen on the street, we have a relationship with both HPD and Constable Alan Rosen’s office.
We called both of them and asked about the problem and were told two things: First, these crimes tend to move in waves. Second, they would up their patrol.
A few folks along 19th Street have let me know they weren’t happy about our story because it might scare people from shopping locally. I understand the sentiment, but that’s a fairly narrow perspective.
For starters, I completely believe in The Leader’s ability to drive public conversation. I’m proud that our staff has made this newspaper relevant to the lives of our community. But our weight only goes so far, and even I understand that we aren’t so important that we can shut down the most popular street in the Heights.
Second, I went back to the same public database to look at how many crimes have been reported on 19th Street in the past two weeks.
We can’t take all the credit, because crime moves in waves. But having HPD and Precinct One know about the problem may be the reason there have been zero crimes reported on that stretch of 19th Street since Feb. 28.